The first movie I ever saw twice was Dirty Dancing. I was 15. My best friend and I sat at the back of the cinema and swooned at Patrick Swayze, wishing ourselves decades out of our own time and into an American summer camp full of Patrick Swayzes. The minute the movie finished we bought fresh tickets and walked straight into the next session of the movie.
I tell this story because the decision to spend the little money I had on a self-indulgence as great and intangible as the FEELING I had in that theatre at 15 was one of my first conscious acts of self-possession. I crossed a threshold, however slight. I wanted to live in that imagined world for a few more hours and I had the power (the $7.50) to make that happen if I chose to.
When I read Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles recently, I reached the last page and turned straight back to the beginning to start again. I wanted to keep the world Sentilles imagines, and the possibilities she points to, alive for as long as I could.
Sentilles began what would become Draw Your Weapons ten years before it was published (2017); around the time she decided to withdraw from studying to become a priest.
The book examines with great compassion the paralysis we feel when we engage with suffering on a large scale—particularly the suffering of people who are physically removed from us. People caught in wars in other countries, for example, or in Australia’s case being tortured by the government on far flung islands, under the banner of national security. We do not see these people face to face but we are constantly exposed to images of their suffering, Sentilles points out.
‘How to live with so much suffering?… What difference can one person make in this beautiful, imperfect, and imperiled world?’ she writes in her introduction.
Sentilles shares her rumination on this dilemma by linking together ideas from art theory, history, reportage and faith to guide readers to a whole that is greater and deeper than its parts. Her form—paragraphs separated by ellipses, is a wonderful expression of the contemplative process behind good writing.
Part of her examination of how to deal with such suffering is to follow the pain and beauty that has flowed from two very different responses to war. One comes from a conscientious objector who was imprisoned during the Second World War. The second comes from a solider who served at Abu Ghraib. Sentilles comes into contact with the men when she sees them, or images that relate to their experience, in photographs.
A subject as big as ‘How do we respond to war and make a difference?’ feels insurmountable if I try to think about it alone. The skill of Draw Your Weapons is that Sentilles has gathered evidence of the human spirit rising to this challenge through history and across all sorts of fields of practice. The risings are not always big; their scale rarely meets the size of the misery they are facing. But each action—’the creation of an artifact—a sentence, a cup, a piece of lace’, is ‘a fragment of world alteration’, Sentilles writes, quoting the words of writer Elaine Scarry.
Good people have resisted despair before us and their example of resistance has helped others survive beside them. It is possible to find a way because it has been done before, is the message.
‘At Auschwitz, where the ashes of victims, scattered by the wind, are still part of the fields and rivers and ponds, there were six orchestras’, Sentilles notes.
Later she observes, ‘Here I am, says every prophet called by God in the Bible, a phrase that is an English translation of the Hebrew word for ready, a word the prophets speak before they know what they’re being asked to do.’
It’s Sentilles’ optimism about the human spirit that holds me. It is so much easier to bend beneath the weight of the worlds’ ills—climate change, mass immigration, democracy’s demise—than to pull yourself together and find a way through. Reading Draw Your Weapons has renewed my determination to strive for a state of mind where I am ready to respond.
The people Sentilles writes about who have responded most gracefully and forcefully to this challenge are artists.
She writes about Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi artist who emigrated to the United States and in 2007 constructed a room-sized cell in a gallery. Bilal set up a paintball gun and a web camera in the cell. The two pieces of equipment were configured to let people watching Bilal via the web, ‘Shoot an Iraqi’ with the paintball from their living rooms.
Some observers of the artwork hacked into the computer program and set the code to fire the gun continuously. Another remote group worked together as a ‘Virtual Human Shield’ to direct the gun away from Bilal in his tiny cell.
There is always another layer of pain waiting to visit us, Sentilles signals with this story. But there is great strength in resisting its force, and behind resistance is determination—a determination to show love.
Sentilles takes memos written by officials from a US government body, which describe the process of water boarding, and uses them to create her own ‘fragment of world alteration.’ Certain words in the memos have been redacted by officials to hide the realities of torture. Sentilles replaces the missing words with poetic phrases from her own imagination, and by doing so, imagines into being another possible reality for a future time.
‘I reimagine Bybee’s torture memos, replace the euphemisms for torture, insert words where the redactions are; You would like to place Zubaydah in a BEAUTIFUL GLASS HOUSE. You have informed us that he appears to LIKE BUTTERFLIES. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a CATERPILLAR into the HOUSE. You have orally informed HIM that you would in fact PLACE A COCOON IN the HOUSE with him. AND HE WILL WATCH THE COCOON, PAY ATTENTION TO IT, WAIT PATIENTLY UNTIL THE BUTTERFLY EMERGES. Finally, THE BUTTERLY would use a technique called FLIGHT.’
By imagining a different reality to the one the torture document tries to mask, Sentilles makes the point that we must imagine into being the reality we want. Once it has been imagined we have a picture of the world to aim for, a road map to creating a better reality than the one before us.
Draw Your Weapons has taken me back to another favourite book, which I plan to start re-reading.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer is love from start to finish. To me, it is a lesson from Safran Foer about the power of love to draw beauty out of enormous pain.
Like Draw Your Weapons, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close expresses the depth and creative power of connection as much through its form as its extraordinary prose.
There is a thoughtfulness in Safran Foer and Sentilles’ approach to sharing their ideas that is so light in its touch but so deep in its reach that it leaves a mark where it has touched me.
Kate Wild has twenty years experience in the creation of long form journalism. Her coverage of abuse suffered by juvenile detainees in the Northern Territory laid the groundwork for a Four Corners program in 2016 that led to the prime minister calling a Royal Commission. After six and half years in the Northern Territory, two of them as an investigative reporter for the ABC, Kate returned to NSW in the middle of 2016. Her first non-fiction book, Waiting for Elijah, the result of a six-year investigation into the police shooting of a mentally ill man in country NSW, was published in June 2018.