When College of Southern Maryland Associate Professor Krista Keyes heard Sunil Yapa present at a conference in 2016, she knew the author would be the perfect addition to CSM’s Connections Literary Reading Series. The annual series highlights artists who exemplify the purpose of Connections – to bring art and literature to life for the people of Southern Maryland.
Yapa is the author of “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” a debut novel about protest and civil unrest that has arrived on the market to critical acclaim. It’s been called one of Time Magazine’s Best Books of the Year; one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year; a Barnes & Noble Great New Writers Pick; and an Indies Next Pick. Yapa will be featured at the March 3 Connections program at the Prince Frederick Campus, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Flagship Building, Room 119.
The book is about the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington in 1999. For Keyes, the book is the perfect addition to the Connections Series because it deals with a timely topic – protest and civil unrest. Keyes said she tries to present to her students an accurate and full picture of how literature reflects current events and how it can affect their perception of the world. She has been using Yapa’s novel in her class “Introduction to the Novel,” because its theme is so topical.
“This novel is exactly what the Connections series is all about because it allows us to make vital connections between American history and current events,” Keyes said. “The novel reminds us of two important things: the history and impact of nonviolent protest, and the fact that underneath our political ideologies, we’re all just humans who want to be loved and accepted.”
The timeliness of the novel, in fact, is a bit of an anomaly. Yapa, speaking over the telephone from Pennsylvania, said he started writing in 2009, long before protests like Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore ever happened. By 2014, he had begun the long process of editing the book with his agent and the novel ended up hitting the market at the most serendipitous time possible when it comes to current events as protest and civil unrest become a part of Americans’ daily lives.
“If you try to write a relevant novel, that’s not really the purpose of a novel. It just takes too long. There’s no way to respond to current events,” he said. “A novel is about expressing what it feels like to be human in this moment.”
Yapa chose to write about protest because, as he sees it, joining a protest is a way of joining a family. In his novel, seven people from very different places are all searching for something, and they all collide in Seattle.
“When I look at protest, it’s something that may not even change things politically, but the people who participate feel a powerful connection to each other,” he said. “In that moment, they feel less lonely, less disconnected, less alienated.”
Keyes considers literature a tool that can bring people together, if used correctly. She says that we cannot always travel to different places and see things through the eyes of other people, but with literature, anyone – whether they have a passport or not – can understand the experiences of people on the other side of the world.
“I try to show my students how literature can increase their sense of empathy, and Sunil’s book does that,” she said.
Yapa said his novel is about emotion, and it goes beyond the initial anger and grief that his characters feel. “When we get angry, our anger burns out. So what can we find beyond that anger? Can love and listening overcome the divisions between us?”
When he comes to CSM, Yapa said he hopes to convey a message to the Connections audience that even though we live in a cynical time, it’s OK for us to care. “Yes we should question everything, but don’t be afraid to care about things,” he said.
The son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, Yapa has lived around the world, including The Netherlands, Thailand, Greece, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, China and India, as well as London, Montreal and New York City.
Yapa received his MFA in Fiction from Hunter College in New York City in 2010, where he studied with Colum McCann, Peter Carey and Clare Messud and was a Hertog Fellow for Zadie Smith. The winner of the 2010 Asian American short story award, Yapa’s work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Guernica, O Magazine, Poets & Writers, The Margins, Hyphen, Slice, LitHub and others. He has received scholarships to The New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, The Norman Mailer Writers’ Center, Bread Loaf Writers Conference and Aspen Words. He currently teaches at the Center for Fiction in New York City.
Tickets for the Yapa reading are $3 in advance, $5 at the event, or $3 with a CSM student ID. Yapa’s novel is available at any CSM College Store. For advance tickets, contact the CSM Box Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 301-934-7828.
There are two more Spring 2017 Connections Literary Series events following the Yapa reading, both of which will be held at the La Plata Campus. Poet Frank X Walker will read from his work on April 7. The Connections Literary Magazine Publication Reading, where the contributors to the magazine read and discuss their published works, will be held May 5. Deadline for submission to the spring edition of the magazine is March 17.
Visit www.csmd.edu/Connections for more information
CSM Spring 2017 Connections Literary Series: Novelist Sunil Yapa. 7:30 p.m., March 3, College of Southern Maryland, Prince Frederick Campus, Building A, Room 119, 115 J.W. Williams Road, Prince Frederick. Novelist Sunil Yapa will read from his work. $3 in advance; $5 at the event; or $3 with CSM student ID. Call 301-934-7828, email email@example.com or visit www.csmd.edu/Connections.