Sunil Yapa’s novel has a strong structure: a ensemble cast—seven different points of view plus a narrator’s voice–weaving around an actual event with vivid details that rise to the level of mythic symbolism. A billy club stands for the brutality of all authority wielded in violence; a police horse evokes intelligence beyond the petty human; a facial scar suggests menace or heroism; the misty rain sets a theatrical atmosphere. Details like PVC pipe, apple cider vinegar-soaked pink bandanas, swim goggles, and a riot helmet reflecting clouds passing overhead work together in an ominous concert of impending doom.
The story at times feels like passages of the Mahabarata, Greek myths of fathers and sons, Shakespearean drama of mistaken identity, or the Bible’s story of the Prodigal son returning. Perennial activist John Henry is a Moses character, bringing his people to freedom through the desert. Even the simple mention of stores at an intersection—the Gap, Banana Republic, a bank—takes on an End-of Empire feel. Yes, they are actual stores, but they also stand for something far greater, beyond any one individual. They are part of a vast capitalist network of exploitation of material resources and people’s lives and livelihoods.
Cause and effect is traced deftly here, and in many ways: through direct conversation, through strategically placed details, through action. The author demonstrates respect for the reader by leaving the connecting of dots up to us. Victor, the young man at the center of the story, remembers a game he used to play with his mother. The passage is touching not only for showing the depth and tenderness of his love for her. It’s also one of the best examples of how Yapa shows us the realities of global trade. Victor pretends he’s a banana growing in a cut-down rainforest on the side of a mountain in Peru. He and his mother describe the scene in a triumph of the imagination, right down to the pesticide plane that flies low overhead with no warning and a man cutting the bananas, who, as the most productive worker, receives advance warning of the plane’s flyover. At the end of the scene, little Victor notes the meaninglessness of that reward: There is nowhere safe to hide, is there, Momma?
Emotional touches are woven throughout the story, exposing the ways that the main characters have suffered loss and abuse, grief and crushing heartbreak. The ways they are all searching for simple relief, if not redemption. Their very presence in Seattle at the protest shows us that their personal fears and bereavements are inextricably tied to the suffering of others—of exploited workers in the third world, even of the so-called authorities like the police. If there are any clear villains in this piece, it’s the mayor and the head of the WTO, both white men in positions of power that think nothing of using any tool in their arsenal to maintain the status quo.
Yapa’s story reminds us that epiphany comes in extreme moments, those times when we are pulled completely out of our normal ways of coping and making sense of the world. Violence and the very real possibility of death are used to great effect here. As is bearing witness to barbaric, senseless cruelty, which is itself a form of violence. This latter is what first pushes Victor into the parallel world beyond fear, a state of ineffable bliss that is beautifully captured with just a few brushstrokes.
I am left wondering if this is a redemption story. The ending is somehow hopeful. John Henry, ever the activist, lives to fight another day. The Sri Lankan trade minister is last seen plotting to band with his fellow third-world ministers and force the WTO to negotiate with fairness and transparency. The father is reunited with his son. The fiery, complicated King is injured, but maybe her wound has cleansed her of past sins. We even learn that the cop, Park, is not just a violent hair-trigger asshole, but a hero, having saved many people after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
A fascinating effect of choosing this event of fifteen years ago is that we are reading through the lens of hindsight. The purpose was fueled by ferocity and idealism back then, but now is colored with poignancy and naïveté. Yapa’s characters really believed that it mattered, that their sacrifice and voices meant something. The leaders were veterans of previous protests: nuclear plants, migrant workers’ rights, even torching a ski resort, however misguided that may have been. Late in the story, we learn that Victor’s mother simply gave migrant workers soup and bread to start their uncertain days. Perhaps these small acts of caring are just as effective as large-scale protest.
The story may end ironically, but it feels aligned with the redemptive and undeniable power of love, of caring, of community. Of banding together in the face of greed and exploitation to raise one common, insistent voice. The tribal power of the human voice demanding justice and fairness. That it’s set fifteen years ago invites contemplation and consideration of the question, Where are we now, today?
I make no claims to accuracy, but my first thought is, We are nowhere. Sure, protests continue, as I read every day in my social media feeds. Yet it feels like we are no further to stemming this tide, to slaying the monster or stuffing the genie back in the bottle—chose your metaphor. For one thing, we have Presidential candidates who spout vitriolic nonsense and incite unthinking followers to hateful bigotry, in speech and action, like this and this.
The labels and headlines have changed, so now it’s climate migrants and terrorism and drug wars and the dislocation of civil war. While multinational corporations buy up rain forests and build railways to haul off the spoils of rare earth minerals and precious metals and timber and oil. The Story of Progress, of haves and have-nots, of the first world exploiting the third world’s resources and people, of debt as control and slavery and human trafficking. It’s all cooking along, just as before.
Syrian refugees flee the unthinkable violence of a civil war ignited by a multi-year climate changed induced drought that was exacerbated by punishing dictatorial policies. The best and brightest left first, and more keep coming. The former colonialist countries of the EU are feeling saturated and arguing about how to stem the tide. And the U.S. is called in to drop bombs, as we are always ready to do. We are the armor-clad riot gear cops at the WTO protest of this story, because “it’s the job.”
This story raises all these questions, and more. It invites us to take a good long look in the mirror, and even to consider where those shoes and that t-shirt are made, where that banana is grown, and under what circumstances. There is, fortunately, a hint of direction at the end. It suggests that we are redeemable by the power of love. It is possible, even in extreme moments, to summon or simply drop into the courage to stand up and say, No more. I witness this and I say, no more.
Even knowing there will always be more. There is no end to cruelty, to the clever and stupid ways that people figure out how to torture each other. The only sane response is love.
We forget. We forget and yet all it takes is one nudge to remember. One moment, one event so deafening in its impact, so confusing to the rational mind, that the story-factory has no choice but to go quiet. All is clear and astonishingly simple. We no longer believe the bullshit, because we have come face to face with what’s real and precious and amazing in this world. Which is to say, everything.
A most beautifully written review and commentary! The counter narrative to the Story of Progress is a new (and ancient) story, a deeply true love story for sure. Like the more dominant Story of Progress, the story of love is also “cooking along, just as before.” Far from the center of attention, it thrives on the margins; in its edge lies its strength, awaiting its times to emerge.
The Story of Progress is heading us toward a cliff. You say that, “Epiphany comes in extreme moments.” I wonder then, what extreme moments, writ large perhaps, will it take for this epiphany to come?
I love this image of the new story lingering on the edges. Because it’s shy, it’s watching and observing. Waiting for ripe moments and epiphanies. Thanks for reading.