I grew up in the US and around the world, the biracial son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana. I hold a bachelor’s degree in Economic Geography from Penn State University where I studied with my father. My graduate writing degree is an MFA from Hunter College where I studied with Colum McCann, and Peter Carey and was a research assistant for Zadie Smith. My story, Pilgrims won the 2010 award for Best Asian American Short Story. I’ve lived around the world, including Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, India, London, Montreal and New York City.
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is about a father and son, a day of chaos, and compassion as a radical act. Set over the course of one violent afternoon during the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, the book traces how the lives of seven people change forever. Foremost among them, police chief Bishop, the estranged stepfather Victor hasn’t seen since the death of his mother three years ago; two protesters struggling to stay true to their non-violent principles as the day descends into chaos; two police officers on the street committed to order, even against their own instincts; and the coolly elegant financial minister from Sri Lanka whose life, as well as his country’s fate, hinges on getting through the angry crowd, out of jail, and to his meeting with the president of the United States.
There is a photo I found in my research. It shows a red-haired woman in a leather jacket kneeling on the pavement with her hands pressed together in prayer or just pain, while a young man kneels beside her, tending to a wound on her head. Looking at this photo I thought—what a moment of courage. To take to the street for the rights of people three continents away.
Years ago, travelling in Sri Lanka—where my father is from— I remember wondering if I’d just passed the child who made my shoes for 60 cents an hour—Nikes that I paid $200 for at home. And so I set out to write a novel about the collisions of globalisation—the ways our lives overlap with lives lived halfway across the globe in surprising, and, funny, and, yes sometimes heartbreaking ways. At its core, this is a book about empathy. About courage, about how caring for other people can sprout wings and fly across borders and walls and fences, plant seeds where nobody would have ever thought anything of any use could grow. In Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, she writes about a black man on the subway—about how nobody seems to want to sit down next to him and the awful emptiness of that seat. Claudia finally stands, crosses the aisle and sits beside him. She doesn’t say anything out loud. But in her head, Claudia says to herself, ‘If anyone asks you to move, you will tell them: We are travelling as a family.’
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra
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