On that damn d-word: Diversity

Hello again, world. Hello, September. I took a little break from the blog, though I didn’t plan for it to be this long. I come back and September is here.

I’d like to tell you that I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been too busy with something super important, like saving the world. So I will. Little did you know, I’ve spent the past week or so on a perilous adventure saving your life and the lives of everyone else on the planet. It’s been very exciting.

Feel free to believe that story, but the truth, I suppose, is that I’ve been busy with things like work, job searching and house hunting. And, of course, writing. I’m pretty proud of the self-discipline I’ve been able to use to keep myself writing. I’m using methods like a rewards system. Lots of writing = lots of ice cream. So maybe I’m getting fat, but so are my notebooks.

Another distraction from the blog has been trying to figure out what to do about graduate school. In my first post, I mentioned I’d be updating about my search for an MFA program. So far, this has been the update: every time I think about grad school, I just want to curl up and…stop thinking about it.

But the last few weeks have been different. I think I’ve figured out what I want to do. My plan was to apply to an MFA program for next fall, and I was feeling hesitant about that for many reasons, including not wanting to leave the Bay Area for school and not wanting to put on hold this life I’ve begun to go back to being a student. I love learning and being a student is what I do best, but in a lot of ways I feel ready to move on from academia, applying my thirst for knowledge to the so-called “real world” (I have a hard time putting this fantasy life I live into that category).

So the solution I’ve found is to apply to low-residency MFA programs, like those at Antioch University, Pine Manor College and Vermont College of Fine Arts. With these programs I can stay in San Francisco, have a full-time job and work on my MFA at a distance from my instructors. Then there are biannual residencies on campus or at another site, usually for ten days at a time. This sounds perfect to me, and I’m glad to at least have a little more clarity about what I want to do. Now I can stop pulling my hair out every time I think about it.

Even though I’ll be away from campus for most of the year, I have certain needs. Apart from wanting to find a good program that might offer some financial aid, I’m also hoping to find… diversity. Or something like it.

I hate to use the d-word. It always seems to fall short, perhaps because it’s been so often thrown around to refer to cases like tossing a token black woman into a room of white guys and calling it an example of diversity. It makes things challenging — how am I to find a college home that truly reflects an array of backgrounds when anybody can slap the word “diversity” on their website and claim to have what I’m looking for? Other questions that come up:

  • How can I be sure that that absurdly happy group of racially diverse students in the picture really attend the school? Isn’t that the cast from Glee?
  • Short of climbing into bed with faculty members, how can I find out if any of the faculty are queer? And will climbing into bed with them help or hurt my chances of being accepted to the school?
  • Should I be concerned if the only black person on the website is the same woman in different photos? Should I be more concerned if they’ve used Photoshop to change her outfits and her hair, apparently hoping I’d think she’s several different people?

You can see why this is challenging. I guess I’d just like to find a community of writers that can understand my perspective as a writer. And to be the young black queer woman among a faculty and class composed primarily of straight white men wouldn’t really make me feel at home as a writer. Hopefully between now and application time I’ll be able to figure out some research methods to get me the information I’m looking for.

Has anybody out there had any experience in low-residency programs? What about in trying to find a “diverse” setting? Any advice would be much appreciated. Otherwise I might end up crawling into strangers’ beds. I’ll let you know how it goes if it comes to that.

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 10:51 AM  Comments (2)  
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Free within ourselves

Thinking about yesterday’s post, I’m reflecting on what a position of privilege I’m in to be able to call myself a queer writer. Historically, and still today, there are many writers who couldn’t come out of the closet as queer. And many people in other positions, too. Maybe they wouldn’t necessarily need to identify as a “queer football player” or “queer politician” to establish who they are, but I’m sure it would be liberating if they could just be honest about that aspect of their lives.

A younger me would’ve been shocked to see me in this position. There was once a time when, because of familial and religious pressures, I thought that I would never come out of the closet. I thought I might tell my parents about my sexuality only in the most dire of circumstances, i.e. if I fell deeply in love with a woman and planned to spend the rest of my life with her, and if my parents didn’t know, I’d have to be sure that nobody else knew, so they wouldn’t find out.

And now here I am, setting out to establish a career in which I identify myself as, of all things, a queer writer. I’m “out” in most areas of my life, though not all, but now I’m broadcasting it on the Internet for anyone to find (shout-out to any extended family who are snooping here now — hi! Yes, the rumors are true). The fact that I was able to come out, and I can now proudly declare who I am while keeping my health, my safety and my livelihood, shows that I’m quite lucky. It’s not a matter of life or death for me, like it is for some folks. So while I certainly don’t believe that everyone should be forced to come out of the closet like me, it saddens me to know that even some of the iconic queer writers and artists who paved the way for our voices to be heard today must be forced to remain in the closet, even long after their deaths.

People ask me about my influences, and three names that come up most often are Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Notice a pattern here? Nobody denies that they’re all black. Nobody denies that they’re all great. But, according to some, somehow I’m supposed to believe that identifying all of them as queer will somehow hurt one’s status as a respectable writer.

I’ve loved Langston Hughes’s work for a long time. And I often cite him as a gay icon, forgetting that many people still try to deny this fact. Obviously, his incredible work stands on its own, but knowing that he’s a black gay writer is what makes, for me, the difference between simply respecting his work and revering him as an iconic figure who laid the groundwork for what I do today. Denying his sexuality is, as Saeed Jones puts it, “as foolish as ignoring his race” (in an old post; I’d recommend checking out his newer updates). Must I really disregard who he is as a person in order to appreciate his work?

It’s frustrating enough when mainstream literary circles try to perpetuate the myth that only straight white men can write what can be considered great. It’s downright insulting to include a gay man among them, to recognize his place as one of the literary greats but only by claiming that he, too, is one of the great straight men.

So I’m coming from a place of privilege when I call myself a queer writer. I’m also coming from a place of gratitude, for those who came before me and struggled as queer artists, particularly queer writers of color, to insist that their voices deserve to be heard as much as anyone else’s. Gratitude for Countee Cullen, for Bruce Nugent, for Gladys Bentley, and yes, for Langston Hughes, and for countless others who deserve to be recognized for their work and for who they are — for all of who they are.

As Hughes has asked many times, what happens to a dream deferred? What happens when our dreams only feel within reach if we pretend to be something we’re not? Though many folks are forced to remain in the closet today, there are others who are opening doors, simply by being themselves and putting their work out there without leaving any part of themselves behind. I hope to join them, to reach my goals simply by being me, and nobody else.

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Water-Front Streets

by Langston Hughes

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But dream ships sail away

To where the spring is wondrous rare

And life is gay.

The spring is not so beautiful there–

But lads put out to sea

Who carry beauties in their hearts

And dreams, like me.

The queer artist

Yesterday I explored some ways I can feel like an authentic writer, methods like blogging from cafes and drinking coffee. It’s clear that these things aren’t what define me as a writer (although, full disclosure: I’m back today, at the cafe with coffee).

Today I’m thinking about how I can identify myself as a writer. Not that I’m eager to put myself in a box, but in many ways I’m sometimes expected to. I try to avoid it sometimes, and succeed for as long as I can until the next person asks that question: “what do you write?” It’s that question you might get from many people when you identify yourself as someone who writes.

Maybe there was a time when answering this question would’ve been a simple one, but it’s since gotten more complicated for me. I often say I’m a fiction writer, but I feel a little guilty about it, because that’s not entirely true. But does each person who asks really want to hear about my internal struggle over whether I’m writing fiction or poetry?

I’ve taken to identifying myself as a queer writer while trying to figure out how to answer the question. You might wonder why I would want to put myself in such a box, especially if not everything I write is distinctly queer.

It’s kind of like the question of why I’d taken on the label of queer. I’ve been asked why queer people want to “flaunt it,” why they would have to broadcast their sexuality as such a primary part of their identity. At times I’ve tried to put this perspective in terms of a bookstore. I can walk into the fiction section of an average bookstore, and I’m sure I’d find plenty of great books, but I might have a hard time finding stories that reflect people like me. I’d scan book covers and summaries on the backs to see if there were any featuring women of color as main characters. I’d try to read into every description of character relationships to see if there could possibly be a queer character somewhere within the pages.

But of course, the majority wouldn’t focus on queer characters, or women of color, and surely there would be very few featuring queer women of color. In all the time I spend searching each book for them, I would definitely find some wonderful books, but the number of books I’d find including my identity might range from very few to zero.

That’s why I have some kind of nerdy bookgasm when I walk into a bookstore to find sections like Black literature, queer literature or (gasp!) lesbian fiction. I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to reading books by authors like myself, but since such books are so rare in mainstream literature, I love finding entire sections devoted to highlighting such work.

So maybe that’s why I call myself a queer writer. As much as I would love to be simply considered a good writer (period), to be identified as a black writer or a queer writer would mean that folks like me, in search of some reflection of their own story, might find my work and hope to find it.

And I would have to ask myself, what would be the advantage of eliminating the labels, identifying myself as only a “writer” without distinguishing myself from any other? Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926, and his words still resonate with me today. He writes of the black poet who just wants to be “a poet — not a Negro poet,” in attempt to fit into the white American standard as much as possible. The black poet says it “as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.”

I identify who I am as a writer because I’m not ashamed. I’m saying that, although voices like mine have long been ignored in many mainstream literary circles, my world is as interesting as any other world. Even if I’m never accepted in those mainstream circles, I will find myself amongst others in celebration of who we are. As Hughes writes: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Another me

Sorry, I took a break from writing for a couple of days. Now I feel guilty for neglecting the blog. Here’s what I wrote this morning, after an odd experience the other day…

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I was downtown the other day when I saw myself. Or rather, I saw another version of me. I’m sure of myself enough to know that I was me, standing on the corner, but I’m pretty sure that was another me, sitting on the outbound 5-Fulton bus that went by.

Needless to say, it was a strange experience. I don’t even take the 5.

I couldn’t really see her very well, just the outline of her hair and her shadowed face, and I wouldn’t have been so sure that it was me if it wasn’t for the fact that she was facing me, staring too, seemingly equally enthralled. And there was that strangely familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I was reuniting with a long-lost soul. If you ever come across another version of you, know that it’s not like looking in the mirror, knowing it’s a reflection of yourself. It’s more like watching a video of yourself that time you got blackout drunk at your cousin’s wedding, and you don’t remember it at all and you’re sure you’re incapable of such behavior, but there it is on the video, a person with your face and your voice, smashing things with strength you never thought you had, until your uncles subdues you. And you have to admit that it could’ve only been you.

Only it wasn’t me, there on the 5. I figure that momentarily she or I crossed into some parallel universe, the Other Me existing in a universe where I take that bus. I’ve seen it in the movies so I know it must be possible. In the movies, of course, there’s always a good guy version and a bad guy version, and while I’m used to thinking badly about myself, I’m trying to change that, so I decided to think badly about the Other Me instead.

She must be the bad version. I bet she didn’t even pay for that bus ride. I bet there’s an old lady standing there, hanging on to a pole for dear life, wishing she could sit down, but the Other Me is only sneering at her as she sits comfortably in her seat.

Sitting on that bus going in that direction, I bet the Other Me lives downtown and goes to school at the local private university, instead of the public one I graduated from. I bet she affords it by selling out to some corporate place, getting on her high horse every day as assistant manager at some place like Pottery Barn, decorating her downtown apartment with the same pastel colored rugs she sells to ten customers a day.

I bet she has a dog, instead of a cat. I bet it weighs 8 pounds and lives in her purse.

Then I start to wonder about her writing. I can’t imagine a version of me that doesn’t write. She’s bold enough that I’m sure she’s already gotten at least two books published, because she wasn’t afraid to break into the business writing something like erotica. I bet she puts her writing on a self-indulgent blog.

Now, of course, the lines between good and bad are beginning to blur. Nothing wrong with writing erotica, and at least she’s gotten published. So she’s bold. So what? I bet her boldness is good in some situations. I bet she’s unafraid to speak her mind. I bet she doesn’t do things like shrink away from confrontations or apologize to the guy who runs into her. I bet she’s unapologetically out about being queer, in all situations, like making the most out of Mother’s Day at her grandmother’s church by taking the pastor’s daughter home without even trying to pretend it’s for further “Bible study.”

I think maybe I’m starting to get down on myself again, thinking this other me is so much bolder and more self-assured than I am. Or maybe she and I aren’t so different after all. Maybe she just didn’t have to wait until she saw another version of herself to realize the possibilities of who she could be. Or maybe that’s not true at all. Maybe she was staring in awe of all that makes me, me. Maybe she didn’t know what was possible until she saw me.

I just hope that from now on she sticks to her own universe, or at least she stays away from my buses. I can only imagine what we might think possible if we put our heads together.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 10:49 AM  Comments (5)  
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Queer words

In an ideal world, maybe, we would be free of labels. We would respect and care for one another not because of what we’re called by others but because of who we are. People often claim to have moved beyond labeling but clearly we have a need to hold on to some types of categorization as a way to understand and evaluate each other.

“What are you?” we ask, squinting at the light-skinned girl with freckles and an afro.

“Wait, are you gay or straight?” we ask the guy whose ex-girlfriend introduced him to his boyfriend.

So, though I’d ideally rather not label my sexual identity, the closest I come is identifying as queer. I’ve heard and participated in many debates and discussions regarding this term, queer, and about categories in queer communities in general. I’d like to explain my use of “queer” and what it means to me, but I want to emphasize that this is my perspective on terms as they apply to me. Part of what can make these conversations so difficult, I think, is assuming that what works for me works for everyone else, which simply can’t be true.

That said, since I could ramble for days about queerness, I’ll organize my thoughts into reasons I identify as queer:

1) The pressure to identify as something. I suppose if I wanted to I could refuse to succumb to all labeling when asked about my dating experiences or attractions, because it’s frankly nobody else’s business, but for the sake of those whose minds seem to be BLOWN if they can’t identify someone as gay or straight, I identify as queer so that I have something to say if asked. They might get it then, or they might still be confused, in which case it’s a chance to teach them about something they don’t know much about.

2) Also because I’m very proud to be queer. Don’t think that wishing I didn’t have to label my sexuality means that I’m ashamed of it. I’m proud of who I am, and one advantage of finding a word that fits is being able to declare it proudly. I love that identifying as queer means taking a word that was once used to oppress people and declaring that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

3) I find it easier/more inclusive than trying to find an all-encompassing acronym. Besides simply rolling off the tongue easier, I feel more comfortable using queer than LGBT… (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender…) because the acronyms always seem to leave someone out. In some circles saying “GLBT” is sufficient, while in others it’s “LGBTQQI…” and so forth. While I don’t have a problem adding on letters for the sake of inclusion, our attempt to do so suggests that we can include everyone. We might say, “well, as long as I include both Qs and the T I’ve got everybody!” when in fact we’d have to include every letter of the alphabet, twice, if we were to truly seek out how each person in the world would like to identify. There are many other questions too, like why is the “T” so often added at the end as a sign of inclusion while transgender concerns are ignored? But on the other hand, perhaps it’s a mistake on my part to use “queer” as a substitute for all these terms, because inevitably there are some within those categories who are uncomfortable being identified as such.

4) “Bisexual” doesn’t cut it. I guess if I were to find myself in the often-used LGBT acronym, I would fall under B, because I’m attracted to both men and women, which implies bisexuality. But in my experience, identifying as bisexual often leads to a fundamental misunderstanding about my sexuality. For one thing, in our society the term comes with several negative connotations, such as a person being “confused” or “slutty.” I could reclaim the term and fight for its true meaning, of course, but its true meaning doesn’t resonate with me either. The prefix “bi” supports the binary gender system that I believe is so hurtful to those who don’t fall under typical understandings of gender and sexuality. To say that I’m bisexual would imply that I’m attracted only to traditional men and women, disregarding the genderqueer folks in between. And I view my sexuality as fluid, rather than strictly defined, so I feel that “queer” comes closest to capturing that.

5) And finally, queer can refer to more than who I’m sleeping with or dating or attracted to. Like the dictionary definition, it can refer to someone who’s just different in some way. I feel that it encompasses more about me, supporting what I believe about my identity, that I am who I am regardless of the romantic partners in my life. So often we base our opinion of people on who they date, labeling them straight or gay and piling on all of the ideas we have about either identity. For the love of all divine things, I am not confused. I’m not going through a phase. I am. I just…am. I only ask to be accepted for who I am today. Because let’s face it, I’m a fucking weirdo. I do things like take myself out on dates, and have conversations with my cat, and then I don’t even have the sense not to blog about it. So yes, I truly am queer, in more ways than one. It works for me.

But like I said, this is only what works for me. What do you think of the word queer, or the acronymns? Are there any arguments against queer that you think I’m missing or don’t understand? I’m always open to conversation about this.

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 9:48 AM  Comments (3)  
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Nature’s Way

New fiction from this morning:

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As a child, Evelyn never would have confessed to something while her mother was gardening. She knew better than to deliver what might be called “bad news” while her mother was on her hands and knees in the dirt, her earth-colored skin glowing beneath the sun as she tended to her flowers with such gentle care that she might simply turn to a tulip in bloom and say, “why can’t my children be more like you?” if Evelyn disappointed her.

Now, as Evelyn was getting older, she reconsidered this strategy. In her eyes, it wasn’t bad news she was delivering, and perhaps if she was in the garden when she heard, her mother wouldn’t see it that way either. Evelyn could only hope, as she approached the towering woman brought down to the size of a hydrangea bush crouching in the garden, that her mother’s oneness with nature in this moment would make everything easier. Perhaps she would listen to what Evelyn had to say and then turn to a tulip with acceptance in her heart, remembering all that it went through before it came to bloom, the winter it hardly survived, the way she planted it carefully in hopes that it would face one direction, only to have it grow to face the opposite, surprising her with the discovery that that’s what she preferred all along.

As Evelyn got closer, the harsh gleam of the sun suddenly felt more hostile and she wiped a line of sweat from her forehead as she began to wonder what she would say, exactly. She’d had the words planned out but now, watching her mother’s fingers abandon a shovel and dig through the dirt themselves, tunneling quickly and carefully as ants, Evelyn felt like her words were buried too. She’d forgotten everything. How would she explain? There was nobody to introduce her mother to, no deep love of which to speak. She was only describing an inkling, a feeling she got around some girls that told her that there would, someday, be a love of which to speak. As her mother looked up to greet her, Evelyn tried to smile, but could only open her mouth in a terrified grimace. Her throat was closing. Her fingers trembling. Her heart and her stomach tightened as one entangled mess.

“Ah,” her mother said, smiling and nodding when she saw her daughter’s face. “So. You’ve finally come to tell me.”

Published in: on June 17, 2010 at 9:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Uniting in our difference

It’s funny what isolation can do to us sometimes. We can feel alone in our struggles, convinced that we truly are alone, that nobody else could possibly understand the individual intersection of the identities that make up who we are.

As a Black queer person, for example, it’s easy to feel this way. And I could pile a bunch of other aspects of my identity on top of those to make this point. It’s a feeling of never being whole in the way one presents oneself. Always having to leave a part behind, based on surroundings. I find myself in communities of faith and communities of color where I can identify with those around me on one level, but in order to do so I must keep another part of me hidden, like my queer identity. Or, I might be in queer circles where issues of race and gender are trivialized, and I’m expected to set aside my perspective as a Black woman for the sake of queer unity.

The intersection between Black and queer is on my mind especially because of a meeting/gathering I went to last night. I’m really glad that I went because it was one of those instances when I would’ve assumed I was alone if somebody (namely Eric Martin) hadn’t reached out to see if anyone else was out there.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be attending “Another World Is Possible,” the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit. It’s a huge event full of workshops put on by activists and organizers from around the country and the world. I’ll have more details on the event and on CUAV, the incredible organization I’m going with, later. Last night’s gathering was called “To Detroit with Love,” and it brought together Black queer people, most of whom are attending the USSF, to discuss our role, hopes and goals for the USSF.

We might think that at an event like the USSF, filled with folks who envision the world as a place of equality, it would be easy for anyone to come as you are. But it might be harder than it seems. Even the most informed social justice activists can play a role in the systems that exclude certain identities. There will certainly be workshops that discuss racial and gender equality while disregarding or forgetting about what the inclusion of queer voices brings to the table. Likewise, there will be activists who focus on queer issues without including the perspective of queer people of color.

The process of full inclusion is a complex one. I’m trying to find a different word than “inclusion” to use, because it doesn’t feel like quite enough. We must include without tokenizing. Speak to the voices that couldn’t be present without misappropriating their struggles, and claiming to understand without walking in their shoes. Move beyond the differences that divide us by finding our common ground, while recognizing those differences that make us unique, that make it so that there can be no one voice that speaks for an entire group.

At “To Detroit with Love,” we all brought our unique experiences and perspectives to the table, creating what felt like some multicolored quilt of thought that held both our similarities and our differences. It doesn’t mean that our experience at the USSF will be perfect or that our presence there will make the change we see necessary to let everybody be free to be all of who they are, but we’ve started a conversation that will continue on. To really make another world possible.

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From the morning’s freewrite:


How will I find you in the dark?

Our black bodies swallowed by the shadows

Remembering what we’ve been told

about what darkness means:

confusion and loss,

wickedness and despair.

How will we find each other?

By remembering we were born in the dark

and within us still

the proud, dark continent

is unearthed in our blood.

Some will call Black a bad word

so we’ll claim it as our own.

A word whose power grows as we do.

Published in: on June 10, 2010 at 9:53 AM  Comments (3)  
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Is this how all blogs begin?

Here’s the story:

After a windy, adventurous road full of challenges and triumphs, I graduated from college with a degree in Creative Writing (technically, English with an emphasis in Creative Writing) and half a Sociology minor (okay, so I never finished it, but I can’t seem to let it go). It’s funny to me that after all that time of adding and dropping second majors and minors, trying to figure out what practical focus could actually get me a “real job” while I pursued my silly dream of writing, I ended up still focusing mainly on creative writing.

So now, of course, comes the inevitable question I hear every day: “What now?” I’ve been trying to come up with creative answers: Join the circus. Fix the oil spill. Sometimes I’m tempted to just say what I want to do: Get a dog. Travel the world. Change the world. Of all the answers, “be a writer” seems to be the most laughable. But why not? It would seem to be most logical to say that after getting a degree in Creative Writing, one would become a writer. Right? Heh.

Maybe it’s just me who makes a joke of it, if I dare to say that’s what I’m doing with my life now. I always accompany it with some self-deprecating line or laugh, because of all the answers, that’s not what anyone expects to hear. But I guess that’s what I’m doing. Being a writer, for now, for me, means: writing, preparing work to submit to literary magazines and writing contests, reading, considering graduate schools and of course looking for that “real job” to pay the bills in the meantime. I’d love to work with a non-profit, which is where that whole “changing the world” goal comes in. But who ever said that changing the world will pay the bills…

But here’s the main thing that makes me a writer: I write. So that’s my plan, to work every day to earn that “er.” In this blog I’ll write about how life goes along the way. I’ll post readings and events, share about some of my favorite writers, share some of my fiction and poetry. I’ll post about social justice work and life in San Francisco. I’ll write about what it means to me to be young, queer, Black and female. I’ll update when I come closer to figuring out what the hell I’m doing with my life, including my search for an MFA program and for a job, and when life laughs at my plans and takes me somewhere unexpected. And I’ll probably post some rants and raves.

And now I have a new answer when someone asks what I’m doing now. I’m blogging. Let’s see where this leads me.

Published in: on June 5, 2010 at 3:32 PM  Comments (4)  
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