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Draw Your Weapons, a Q&A with the author, Sarah Sentilles

Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles, who resides in the United States, is one of Text’s July books and is already receiving acclaim. This is an important book for what are most definitely Interesting Times.

LitHub has listed it as one of their ‘16 Books You Should Read This July’  and the managing editor describes the effect of reading this book as, ‘I felt like an awakened genius at the close of each section.’

Sarah Sentilles answered some questions about her book for us and we’re developing quite the publisher-crush on this eloquent and erudite woman.

But before we get to the questions, here are a couple of facts about her:

  • Sarah Sentilles almost became an episcopal priest. She holds a Doctorate of Theology from Harvard Divinity School and has written extensively about her break-up with God.
  • She was a college professor for over a decade before becoming a full-time writer and is now a passionate advocate for life lived by peace and principle.
  • She is the co-creator of Drone Alert Sutras, a project of the BlueSky Committee that prompts participants to create video responses to American drone attacks as they happen. It’s worth spending some time on this site. The videos are incredibly thought-provoking and meditative.
  • She has taught in primary school.
  • She used to paint and was co-director of the Washington Street Art Center.

 Can you give us a brief description of your book?

Now that Trump is president, this book feels more relevant, more urgent, than ever. It is an impassioned defense of life lived by peace and principle. It is a literary collage with an urgent hope at its core: that art might offer tools for remaking the world.

In Draw Your Weapons, I tell the true stories of Howard, a conscientious objector during World War II, and Miles, a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib and, in the process, challenge conventional thinking about how war is waged, witnessed, and resisted. The pacifist and the soldier both create art in response to war – Howard builds a violin; Miles paints portraits of detainees.

I investigate images of violence from slavery to the drone age, and, in doing so, I ask: What does it take to inspire compassion? What impact can one person have? How should we respond to violence when it feels like it can’t be stopped?

I wrote Draw Your Weapons to change the public conversation about war, images of violence, and art. I wrote it with the hope that art matters, that words matter – that if the world is made, then it can be unmade and remade.

Howard Scott’s life – a life in which he said no to violence and yes to love, to peace, to principle, and faced the consequences – inspired me to write this book and helped remind me in the middle of the Bush years that it was possible to take a stand against violence, that one person can make a difference. I need this reminder even more today, living in a Trump presidency. And I think my readers need this reminder, too.


How long did it take to write this book and what was involved?

It took me ten years to write this book. It was inspired by two photographs that changed my life: one of a man holding a violin and the other of a man standing on a box being tortured.

I was working on a dissertation on theological imagination at Harvard when the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib prison were made public (2004). I decided to write my dissertation on those photographs instead. Years later, I was teaching a class about art and critical media studies at California State University Channel Islands, and one of my students told me he had been stationed at Abu Ghraib prison. He then shared his stories with me about what he experienced there and at war. He is an artist – and he made paintings of the detainees he met at Abu Ghraib prison. His story is also a key part of Draw Your Weapons. In the book, I name him Miles.

In 2006, a friend showed me a photograph in the Boston Globe of a man named Howard Scott. Howard had been a conscientious objector during World War II. His college roommate was Japanese American, and when his family was interned, Howard walked out of the Civilian Public Service camp in protest. He was put in prison. While in prison, he began to build a violin. The Globe story was about his grandson giving the finished violin to Howard on his birthday. The photograph in the Globe showed Howard holding the violin, and when I saw it, everything in my body said: YOU NEED TO WRITE ABOUT THIS MAN. I called information and got his phone number. I called him and talked with him; I wrote him a letter; Howard’s daughter found my letter and called me to invite me to visit them; I travelled to meet him and his family – and they gave me permission to write his story. They also gave me access to all of the letters Howard and his wife, Ruane, wrote to each other while he was in prison, which included instructions Ruane typed about how to build a violin.

The whole process of meeting Howard and his family felt magical. His daughter (whose name is Kayleen Pritchard) told me on the phone the first time we spoke that that she’d been going through her parents’ letters – boxes and boxes of letters – and she’d felt overwhelmed, so she’d said to the universe, ‘I need someone to help me write a book about this.’ The date on which she said that is the same date on which I wrote the first letter to Howard, asking if I could write a book about him. When she told me this, she said, ‘Pixie dust’, which is what she and her sisters always say whenever they think their mother (who has died) is making something happen in the world.

The book required intense research – ethics, critical theory, photography theory, history, philosophy, journalism…I loved every minute of it.

Draw Your Weapons is connected to the following contemporary issues:

  • Internment: Howard protested the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. His college roommate was Gordon Hirabayashi, who took his case against internment all the way to the Supreme Court. Now Trump is championing internment as good practice and suggesting it’s what should be done to Muslim Americans. I discuss internment and I connect it it to detention centres and prisons and dark sites run by the US all over the world.
  • Drones:  I explore the idea that belief in an all-seeing, all-powerful, death-dealing god prepares people to accept all-seeing, all-powerful, death-dealing drones. We are prepared to receive the loss of freedom and privacy (for some) and the delivery of death and destruction (for others) as salvific.
  • Torture: I wrote this book in response to two photographs – one of Howard, and one of the man standing on the box at Abu Ghraib. Torture is a central part of the book, and now that Trump is pledging to torture, even to escalate the methods used to torture, the conversation is terribly relevant again.
  • Stop Trusting the Image: In response to police violence against unarmed Black men/boys, there are new calls for laws requiring police to wear body cameras. Do images ever make anything better, and if so, under what conditions? Should the logic used to argue for police body cameras be extended to military body cameras? Draw Your Weapons wrestles with what photographs are and how they work and what effects they might have.
  • Police violence against Black men/boys: Today’s police violence against Black males and the images of that violence reproduced in the media are linked to the history of racist photography, lynching, and longstanding questions about who has a right to look at these images — and how such photographs and videos function in a racist society. I wrestle with these questions in Draw Your Weapons.
  • War – or, Why Art Now: The call to war against North Korea, Syria, Iran, ISIS, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, wherever; the war against terrorism; the argument against liberal arts education; the need for media literacy – I think that art teaches a way of seeing and approaching the world that is essentially ethical, world-altering, and full of hope. Art knows that it is an inventive enterprise, that representation is agendised. War is the opposite in that it presupposes truths so inerrant that widespread murder and destruction are permissible. We need more art, and in doing so, we might have less war.
  • Why Not These Bodies?: Why doesn’t the media show the bodies of victims of mass shootings, but does show the bodies of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and victims of war in other countries? Who is viewable, who is grievable, and who merits the dignity of invisibility? Again, my book wrestles with these questions and questions about visibility and invisibility.
  • Ethics & Empathy: As the refugee crisis and anything Trump says demonstrate, humans rarely have a problem cultivating ethical behavior when we recognise ‘sameness’, but we often fail to act ethically in the face of difference; I suggest, then, that we need an ethics based on difference.

How did the idea originate? 

I started writing this book as a novel. I wrote it all the way through as a novel – it took me years. Then a friend told me the manuscript was not working as fiction. She suggested I write it as non-fiction instead, and (after I calmed way down!) I decided to give it a try. I basically shattered the novel and then stitched it back together – again and again and again – until it took its final form, which is a kind of collage.

The form of the book – a series of juxtaposed fragments – is inspired by the artist Fred Wilson, specifically his installation Mining the Museum, which he created at the Maryland Historical Society. One piece in that installation includes slave manacles in a glass and wood display case next to silver goblets and vases. The title is ‘Metalwork, 1793–1880’. I hope my book does something similar to this Fred Wilson piece – puts things together in a way that makes meanings multiply, that reveals sometimes hidden violence, that creates room for multiple interpretations. I leave a lot of white space on the pages of this book. My hope is that the white space will allow the reader to make up her own mind, to form her own opinions, to create her own thread through the story. 

And her surname is pronounced Sen-till-ess (we asked). You’re probably going to be talking about her quite a bit, so this will come in handy.

And one of her hobbies (on top of being Woman of the Decade) is skate skiing.

We could keep going on about Sarah, but instead, we strongly encourage you to get out to your nearest bookshop or ebookstore and start reading this book.

Draw Your Weapons

Draw Your Weapons

Sarah Sentilles


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