Shelf Life


Shelf Life

by Sunil Yapa

Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist) will appear at the Center on April 12th as part of our panel, Fiction That Matters: The Story of Social Engagement. Yapa will be joined by Edie Meidav (Kingdom of the Young; Lola, California) and Dana Johnson (In the Not Quite Dark). 

This bookshelf sits above the desk I've written at for the last ten years. It is an IKEA jerker, easily assembled and disassembled, which is good because putting things together and taking them to pieces is something I've done a lot of in the last ten years. I bought the desk and the attached shelf in 2006 in Texas during my first attempt at writing school. It was unearthed from my father’s attic and followed me two years later to New York City for my third attempt. It was at this desk, beneath this bookshelf, that I began my first novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, published in January by Lee Boudreaux Books at Little, Brown. That was New York in 2009. I wrote this novel in 17 different places and the desk and shelf could not follow me everywhere. But four years after beginning, the desk, the shelf and I were in New Orleans where we finished what I thought would be the final draft. Nope. Take it apart. Put it together again. In my Dad’s house again (luckily not in the attic this time) I assembled and began work again. It was here that I finally truly finished and the book went out.


What you're looking at is what I see when I sit at my faithful IKEA desk, push my chair back, lift my eyes and sigh in frustration. I did this often while writing this novel and these were the books I turned to when I was what I technically refer to as “hopelessly stuck.”


The stack on the right is made up of many of my nonfiction source books. From my battered copy of Howard Zinn’s masterpiece (where the thought came that history is not changed in huge conflicts, but moves forward by the passionate actions of a committed few) to Starhawk’s intimate look inside the WTO protests and the global justice movement—these were touchstones, giving faith and fire and more often than not the plain old facts. Below those are three of my all-time favorite books, not for their writing but for their photography: Susan Meiselas’s documentation of the Nicaraguan Revolution and its aftermath; Sebastiao Salgado’s profound series on workers around the world; and a collection of photographs from the Magnum Agency documenting the soul and longing of protest and revolution from a young Mandela in South Africa to the peaceful 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and Hungary.


Moving left are the novels I used as guides. From Edward P. Jones's The Known World to Delillo’s Libra (which first gave me an inkling that a novel written about recent American history could be done). They are all brilliant examples of artists using history to create profound and detailed works of art that show how the large forces of history are sometimes best understood through the much smaller lense of human lives as we live them. The political is the personal. When someone would ask me why I wanted to write a novel about something that actually happened, these are the novels I would point to. If you are asking yourself the same, I recommend any and all. Start with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall for a page turner about power politics and family in 16th century England. Amazing.


All the titles between between DeLillo (from Libra’s bright yellow cover to the doorstop masterpiece Underworld) are the books I kept above me for language and insight and frankly, sustenance. Poetry like bread, indeed. Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine, June Jordan, Marilynne Robinson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, and Junot Díaz—do I really need to explain?

When I fell apart, these were the books that put me back together again.







Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan


Sunil Yapa’s debut novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist was published earlier this year to wide critical acclaim. Yapa holds a BA in economic geography from Penn State University, and received his MFA in Fiction from Hunter College in New York City. He is the recipient of the 2010 Asian American Short Story Award, sponsored by Hyphen Magazine and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York, and has received scholarships to The New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, The Norman Mailer Writers’ Center in Provincetown and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Margins, Hyphen Magazine, The Tottenville Review, Pindeldyboz: Stories that Defy Classification, and others. 



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