A brief public service message

Saying this because in the past couple of days I’ve had some Incidents, both professional and personal, and I’m beginning to be Pissed Off. Warning for profanity.

Let me make something clear: I talk about race, gender, and other issues of social justice because I have to. Because if I want to survive in this business, I don’t just have to adapt myself, I have to adapt the field itself — or I will die young of a heart attack or a stroke or something. But this does not in any way mean I talk about race and gender because I enjoy doing so. I don’t. It sucks up energy I desperately need to stay afloat while I’ve got two demanding fulltime jobs. And nobody really listens, anyway — for every one person I reach, five more declare me a PC Nazi and run off to lament the passing of the Good Old Days when they could be assholes with impunity. But as long as the literary field still reeks of bigotry, I feel I have no choice but to continue calling it like I see it. If I want change I have to act. See something, say something, etc.

However. I’m getting a little tired of so many people in the SFF genre treating me as N. K. Jemisin, Professional Black Woman.

At most conventions I go to, I get asked to be on the “race panels” (I stopped saying yes last year, except at cons like Wiscon where there’s a reasonable chance that the moderator and audience will not be clueless). In almost every interview, I get asked how I feel about Octavia Butler — even when I don’t mention her as a literary influence. (She’s not, ya’ll. She’s a career influence; knowing she made it in this business made me realize I could do the same. But in terms of her subject matter and writing style? No.) I’ve been invited to write for probably a dozen anthologies that have diddlysquat-all to do with the kind of stuff I usually write; it’s painfully clear in some cases that they’re just trying to increase their table of contents’ diversity. (I say no.) Walking down the hall at random events, random strangers ask me to teach them how to do a better job of writing people of color — WTF, people, at least offer to buy me a drink first, if you’re going to impose on my time like that. This is apart from the fact that I get mistaken for every other black woman in existence everywhere I go. At Worldcon I was Nalo Hopkinson, twice. So in some people’s eyes I’m clearly not even N. K. Jemisin, unique Black Woman. I’m just… Black Woman. Able to represent everyone like me and educate the clueless in a single bound.

Oughtta get a damn superhero emblem.

Look, I am a black woman. That’s not a problem. People notice my race and gender, I get that; that’s not a problem either. I certainly notice everyone else’s various identities. That’s the way the human species works. This is not what I’m complaining about. What pisses me off is being tokenized, essentialized, stereotyped, and being noticed for nothing but my racial and gender identity. How many motherfucking awards do I have to win to stop people from doing that? (Or will that just make it worse?)

Because I am also N. K. Jemisin, Author. I am N. K. Jemisin, New Yorker and former Southerner. How ’bout N. K. Jemisin, Counselor? N. K. Jemisin, Gamer? N. K. Jemisin, Pretty Good Cook and Lover of Good Restaurants? Or at least just N. K. Jemisin, Extremely Busy Person? Yeah, all that’s me, too.

So I’m establishing a rule. The next time somebody starts treating me like N. K. Jemisin, Black Woman, I’m going to ask that person what else they know about me. Just a simple question. Nothing rude about that, is it? I’m just going to make sure they see a little bit more of me than my skin, or my tits. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

60 thoughts on “A brief public service message”

  1. It’s sad that in this day and age it still happens. I for one could careless what race creed or color you are all that matters to me is that you can write. I’m glad I read this because I learned some more about you the person. Don’t let idiots get you down because there are lots of them out there. With that said remember that you are who you are and that every component makes the whole.

  2. I listen to you :)

    So, what ARE your literary influences? Links/descriptions of places you have already answered the question would work just fine…Actually, there were some aspects of “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” that made me think of Tanith Lee. Yeine’s voice was a bit like some of her 1st-person characters, to my ear.

  3. I fell in love with your books before I ever realized you were a black woman, and to me, N.K. Jemisin is one of my Favorite Writers. Everything else I know about you–black, progressive, busy as f@#%, interesting blogger–comes second to Favorite Author. It grieves me very much that people who should know better than to monolithicize people would do all that crap.

    I hope those folks are payinhg attention to this post! Gah, kyriarchy is annoying

  4. I just wanted you to know that I, random reader of your work, think of you as N.K. Jemisin, person whose next book I am totally eagerly awaiting, and also that new Dreamblood series sounds pretty awesome too.

    Also as N.K. Jemisin, person whose books got those really bad-ass covers. And N.K. Jemisin, who totally has a nice policy on fanworks, and did you know that The Inheritance Trilogy got nominated as a fandom that people either want to write or request for Dark Agenda’s Kaleidoscope fanworks exchange, and was a Yuletide fandom last year?

    One of the Yuletide fanfics included an Alternate Universe story with Inheritance Trilogy characters in an Revolutionary Girl Utena-influenced setting. So, you may not be too far from getting that Nahadoth hosts the Muppet Show cross-over fanfic. :)

    (No links provided, since you said you don’t want links to fanfic, so I’m being extra cautions and extending that to the sign-up pages of fanfic exchanges, but I assure you that means people Want to Write and Read More About Your Awesome Worlds.)

    Also, I like your cool blog posts about feminism, colonialism, race, and all sorts of other stuff (like sweet fanart!) too. :)

  5. I don’t know much about you, but ‘eloquent’ suddenly seems apropos.

    There’s this line in the backpack-privilegr essay about being able to speak without being judged as a representative of your race/gender/orientation/ethnic/etc. which your essay is bringing to mind.

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  8. N.K. Jemisin: sci-fi nerd, cat-lover, world-traveller, beautiful friend. Also, she tried to kill me twice*. Yeah, that’s right. Twice.

    Personally, when being objectified, I will simply turn and walk away lest I react physically and someone end up with injuries.

    *I am allergic to shrimp but did not know that at the time, not having eaten shrimp before that. :)

  9. Lauren,

    I’m a fundamentally nice person, so it takes a lot to push me into Slapping People In The Mouth mode. But I’m getting there. ::wan smile::

    Seriously, though, I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt. One aspect of racial and gender privilege is that people who aren’t black women may not realize just how often black women, oh, get mistaken for other black women. Or fend off people trying to touch their hair. Or get complimented on being articulate and intelligent… as if that’s somehow unusual. Or get treated as walking Learning Experiences by people who mean well, but really haven’t thought through their approach.

    So when I have the energy to do so, I do try to point out that these things are a problem. But I’ve got precious little free energy these days.

  10. Katchan,

    I didn’t mean to! I really try not to kill people I care about! ;_;

    …Did you at least like the shrimp creole before it almost killed you?

  11. NK Jemisin: awesome friend, owner of a cat my husband covets, and avid wonderer of why Trader Joe’s Tomatoes have wheat listed as an ingredient.

  12. You have to fend off people who want to touch your hair? What is WRONG with people? You don’t touch unless invited!

    I only know you as N.K. Jemisin, author recommended to me by John Scalzi (not personally – I’m just a fan) whose blog I’m going to start reading regularly. I have the first two books in The Inheritance Trilogy, and they just moved to the top of my to-read list. Good timing, too, since I finished a book just last night.

  13. For what it’s worth, I had no idea what your gender was or what your skin colour was or any of it, when I started reading what you wrote . . .

  14. Donna,

    Re: Trader Joe’s tomatoes: IT MAKES NO SENSE.

    Re: My cat: tell Todd to back off. That’s MAH kitty.

  15. N.K. Jemisin, cross-poster at Alas, a Blog, who wrote so well about stuff that when I found out her real name I ran to read her published work.

    Yeah, I knew you’re black. Yeah, I knew you’re female. That’s what you were blogging about. I read lots of blogs, though, and I don’t run to track down everything all the bloggers write. Your writing doesn’t particularly remind me of anyone else’s — that’s one of the things I like about it.

    I have done a bunch of well-intentioned but wrong, wrong, wrong things in my time, and the fact that the people whose experiences I was clueless about didn’t drop me is a tribute to their kindness, not my own deserts. And I hope I’ve learned from all that. But white people who touch black people’s hair uninvited? Or who demand such an invitation? I know it happens, but I find it almost impossible to believe. That’s a level of rudeness beyond almost anything else.

  16. Right on, writer. I followed this link because a close female friend has been sharing interesting feminist and progressive links all night while we had a long pleasant discussion. “Cool, black feminist.” Then I found out you write science fiction and fantasy. Then I find out you write one of my favorite flavors – epic fantasy.

    Now I can’t wait to get hold of your books.

  17. Went through a similar thing the moment I started college and again when I chose to major in Creative Writing. I was the only, black, female, fantasy writer. That was all people saw, save for one teacher because he could relate to being an “other” since he was gay and latino. Then I had a teacher who hated fantasy and I didn’t find out until two or three years later that she wanted me to write about being black. :P

    Then I wonder if by not responding to things like that, am I denying a part of myself? Then that doesn’t make sense because after so many questions and requests, I feel like a trained animal or a Magical Negro.

    It’s icky no matter how it’s spun.

  18. Tiffany,

    Then I had a teacher who hated fantasy and I didn’t find out until two or three years later that she wanted me to write about being black. :P

    Then I wonder if by not responding to things like that, am I denying a part of myself?

    No. You’re refusing to cram yourself into the narrow little box that privileged, ignorant people like your teacher keep trying to stuff you into. Don’t let them. Write what you damn well please; it’ll reflect your identity because all fiction does that for all writers.

  19. I noticed that in your list, you left out former Bostonian… :-)

    The idea that you would be mistaken for Nalo….I’ve met Nalo. The two of you look nothing alike.

    Getting asked to be on the “race panels”: I suspect it’s more a function of your visibility as a writer than anything else, but I sympathize. I remember Samuel Delany talking once about how he kept being asked to appear with Octavia Butler, even though their writing was vastly different.

  20. Michael,

    Re Boston: I just lived there. And I liked it, but to be Bostonian, you kinda have to be born and bred to it. Boston let me know that in a dozen different ways, which is why I ultimately left. New York likes adoptees. :)

    And yeah, most of the writers of color I’ve talked to have had similar experiences with the race panels and being mistaken for each other. The three black women in my writing group — myself, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and K. Tempest Bradford — all play a game after each con in which we count the number of times we get mistaken for each other (we look nothing alike), other black women authors at the con, and other black women who either aren’t at the con, never go to cons, or couldn’t possibly be at the con. (I did get mistaken for Octavia Butler at one World Fantasy a few years back. Several years after she died.)

  21. I can definitely relate. I’m a mixed race person of no importance whatsoever (Never wrote anything, been on tv, anything).
    I do, however, look racially ambiguous enough that everyone thinks they’ve met me. I am that one ___ they met. (That foreign kid in my 9th grade class, my cousin, my neighbor, that one italian I met. If I acted I’d have a thousand roles.)
    Every time I walk into class, someone thinks they’ve had class with me before. Or they went to grade school with me. Or I look JUST LIKE… whatever.
    And I know it’s an honest mistake, and I try very hard not to get frustrated, especially when they insist, despite my assertions, that they do in fact know me. In my head I’m rationalizing. I know that it’s scientifically proven to be difficult for people to discern between people outside of their race. But seriously? Don’t we have enough half-mexicans in Texas yet that I’m not everyone’s mother’s brother’s son’s cousin?
    There’s even one cage that my brother used to go to that I refused to because the mixture of someone who really DOES look like me going there, plus my looking like everyone apparently, grated my nerves way too much.
    The absolute worst? People think I’m my boyfriend’s sister. Or worse, his daughter(He’s not even that older than me!!)
    “DON’T I KNOW YOU?!”
    No! Stop asking!

    BTW, as a mixed raced person, it made me very happy to meet Yeine. I was like, SEE! SEE! We do exist!

  22. But wait; I thought you *were* me? Or maybe I’m you? I could swear I remember the moment when we, glorious in our identicalness, were both budded off the Octavia Butler Origin Node. How else did we both find ourselves in this handcart? And why am I holding a slip of paper that reads, “Bill of Goods”? (What I’m really trying to say; thank you.)

  23. I think your plan could yield some very interesting responses; maybe being put on the spot like that could actually get people to think about how much they’re pigeonholing you. Or at least it could be amusing. Maybe you can give us a status report after you try it?

  24. My favorite question was always “What are you?” with a quizzical look when I answer “Black?”, as in hello, we all look different, y’all…I can’t help it that my ancestors jumped anyone they thought was hot, regardless of race. I understand the desire to be “Nora” and not a representative of the race every time you walk into a room. I also get irritated at the black folks who reuse to talk to another black person in a mostly white room, as if they can exempt themselves as long as they don’t talk to another one.

    Most of my professional life writing for kids’ TV was on shows where I was thrown on the grenade of minority characters to make sure they didn’t screw them up, but I spent as much time convincing them that the way they wanted to draw them was not only inaccurate but horribly, horribly offensive. I also wrote shows where my race had nothing whatsoever to do with what I was writing or why I was hired. Now that I am writing work for myself and whatever public I find, I enjoy being able to let my characters be who they are, and find myself with as wonderfully varied a cast of individuals of all stripes as my friends.

    One of the things I love about your books is your ability to flesh out characters of all varieties, with the emphasis not on what they look like, though described, but on who they are as individuals, which is all any of us want recognized in life, of any race or blend.

  25. Just think – You could be jewish, black, female and disabled. Then they could tick all the boxes when they ask you to be on a panel or in an anthology!

  26. I love all of your posts and rants. (I used to feel like I was the only one ranting about those issues–particularly in speculative fiction and entertainment. Felt like I was “The Unreasonably-Angry Black Woman.”)

    Don’t mean to be an echo–I already had an interest in The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms but entered Ultra Squee-mode when I found out that you were a black woman (this discovered through reading up on RaceFail–which was the best thing ever since I found out that PoC specufic writers existed, haha). I think I went into Squee-mode Ultimate when I found out that you were an anime/manga enthusiast.

    I, too, am a fantasy writer, so it’s a comfort to read your rants. As strange as that may seem, hehe, since I fume at the same time.

    P.S. Also a Nahadoth fangirl =)

  27. I had no idea you were black when I read your book. I only found out by searching for your blog and realizing you had a lot of fascinating things to say about race, culture, female-treatment, etc. and THEN saw your picture and put the rest of things together.

    To me you are writer first, everything else second. I’m sorry on behalf of the “well-intentioned” thoughtless people out there. I’m not black, but I have a chronic illness and I’ve gotten my share of thoughtless, well-intentioned remarks on a different score. Painful fact of life: They don’t understand. As much as I wish they did.

    So I guess we’re here to help make them understand.

    Good luck! I’m rooting for you. :D

    (Also, the super-hero emblem would be…almost fitting….Huh.)

  28. I am just now starting 100,000 Kingdoms, and the first thing I do is read all the author thanks stuff, glossaries, stuff like that.

    What did I notice?

    N.K. Jemisin. Named cat after early 90s anime character. My kind of geek.

    Rock on.


  29. I think you’re the wonderful writer who adds some color to my fantasy reading. Lately, I think of Yeine whenever I read a dystopian fantasy where apparently no pocs survive. Or that epic fantasy land where the only pocs are the once mentioned people who live in the ‘southron lands’. Or perhaps the epic fantasy filled with magic, wizards, faeries, dwarves, whatever–but no people of color. Or worse, they are always the bad guys. Heavy sigh….

    Keep ranting and keep writing.


  30. What else do I know about you?

    I only know what is on this one page right here. I came here blindly following a link John Scalzi tweeted so my first impression of you was formed by this post (which I read in it’s entirety) and the comments. (which I skimmed)

    I know you are angry at how you are personally treated and at portions of fandom and also society as a whole. From the sounds of it, justifiably so. If I were to meet you in person I would probably try and keep our interactions as brief and superficial as possible, not out of any animosity but simply because I wouldn’t want to add to your discomfort or become a statistic in your list of social faux pas. My own insecurities make me think that any attempts on my part to bridge our cultural differences would probably make things awkward and only add to your already low opinion of the literary field.

    I wish you well. I hope things will change for the better but right now I have no idea how that’s going to happen.

  31. Foible, please read the rant again. I’ll ask people what else they know about me if they treat me like an object rather than a person. Approach me the way you would any other human being — assuming you approach most human beings with courtesy and a basic degree of respect — and we’ll get along just fine. It’s really not that complicated.

  32. Ma’am,
    First of all, let me say my only complaint with you is that I seem to read faster than you write (or maybe than your publisher prints).

    I had no idea what color skin you have when I first started your books and I am not particularly inclined to investigate an author’s demographics prior to reading.

    I think people mean well, and lets face it, there are not many black female scifi and fantasy writers out there so any one is likely to be a curiosity. I mean if I as a white person wrote for Jet or Ebony I imagine a lot of black people would be real curious about me.

    You are right for refusing to continue to address the issue at these forums. If more people would, the country would be a much better place. PLEASE WRITE FASTER!!!!!

  33. Well, Nora (if I can call you that :-) ) when I read your book you were for me just a novice writer James Nicoll recommended (maybe that was ultimately from Scalzi, just cited by James, I don’t remember). I can tell you more funny things – for years after I’ve read and highly esteemed Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany I had completely no idea about their race (and I couldn’t care less). You are what you are and you write what you write, that’s all. And I can tell you, if my hair are unbound they also attract unwelcome touchers, even if I am (for my central-European country) so boringly white… :)

  34. Oh, Nora, the shrimp creole was divine. So was the gumbo. I’m just sorry I couldn’t keep it inside ^^;;

    Also, I’m with others who’ve spoken up here – I guessed from your name (you did sign as “Nora”) that you were a woman but didn’t know you were black when we were first emailing back-and-forth. It didn’t make a difference to me when you told me; I still thought you were (and think you are) awesome. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never touched your hair (nor have you touched mine), apart from incidental contact. I feel about other women’s hair the way I feel about pregnant bellies. They aren’t to be touched unless one is explicitly invited to touch.

    Also, I will step up here and take credit for the cat’s name, since her name was Marmalade before she came to me, and I refused to have a tortoiseshell named after something made out of the parts of an orange that no one wants to eat :D

  35. great rant/post – thank you for sharing. Also, kudos for standing up for yourself and saying No when appropriate.
    FWIW, this post inspired me to go back and read a bunch about Racefail 2009(?) and I re-learned a lot.

  36. Hey, *I* recognized you at WorldCon :) (I was the girl in the hallway on Friday night, wearing the corset.) That’s because I knew what you looked like from the picture on the inside back of your book cover!

    If I may confess, the thing that really irked myself and a friend at the Con was when the *white male non-author* took it upon himself to declare himself the moderator of the Social Justice in Science Fiction panel.

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  38. Hi
    what I know – I know you are a writer whose works I have really enjoyed – and I am eagerly looking forward to many more books from you! I stumbled on your blog because I was curious to learn more about you and your writing, and I have stayed because I think that you write powerfully and provocatively about issues that I find really interesting and important. “Nora” is one of my favorite names, and I love cats – I think I’d like to buy you a drink someday, if that doesn’t make me a stalker!

    I would be interested in learning about some of the writers that have influenced you – that’s one way that I find other authors to enjoy!

    Re: the hair touching thing. I used to work at a company with a student from Nigeria. One day, he reached out and touched my hair (which was quite long, blond and straight). I don’t think he really intended to – it was an impulse – and he was mortified. It made me start thinking about the concept of ‘exotic’ and what it can mean and imply in different settings and different cultures.

    Thank you for sharing your blog with your fans.

  39. Nalo!

    Yeah, clearly we were Separated At Birth. I think that’s 12 times I’ve been you so far. Maybe just 11.

    And I’m thinking about dreding my hair, too? We might as well just declare each other twins now! ;)

  40. N.K. Jemison, fucking awesome author and all-around interesting person who likes kickass anime. I love reading what you have to say about various issues, whether it be current state of SF or progressive issues or just chatter about books and anime. (I LOVED the discussion you held about anime here and got a whole bunch of great recommendations to look up! :D)

    I can sympathize to some degree. While this is not the same thing — I’m disabled, and though my illness is technically invisible (fibromyalgia/RA), I sometimes walk with a cane. I often look pale and sickly, and all my joints crunch in interesting ways even when I’m not trying. I have had people stop me more times to ask stupid questions about my health and identity. It is very frustrating to get pigeon-holed and have people see one thing about yourself and nothing else. Disability is part of my identity, but I am far more than just Disabled Chick.

    I think part of the issue may be that while people in SF/F are becoming more aware of race since the various iterations of RaceFail, they still don’t always know how to respond. I’ll admit I can fall into this trap sometime, and I end up listening a lot more than talking because I don’t want to inadvertently hurt someone. But a lot of people seem to think that talking about race is the Right Thing To Do (and I’m not saying it isn’t) but they haven’t learned how to do so in a way that’s not hurtful and stereotyping and intrusive.

  41. I will go with N.K Jemisin: Writer of Awesome Books and Awesome Blog Posts! Thanks so much for posting this.

  42. I’m one of those readers who didn’t know your race when I read your books. Didn’t matter to me then (I was too enraptured by your beautiful brain to care about your skin color) and doesn’t matter now overmuch (same reason) except that reading your blog and learning about your various trials as a person of color in this field has been an eye-opening experience for me.

    It boggles me that race could be a big deal for a fiction author (who bloody cares when the words are so pretty?) or that people at conventions could be so… disappointing. I don’t know if I just naturally want to believe people are better, or if I’m terribly sheltered.

    As a Midwestern White Girl, there’s a lot about the world that I don’t know — and don’t know that I don’t know. I appreciate posts like this because they give me a chance to see a different perspective and help me be less clueless, which is nice. Also, in my own writing I try to include a mixed bag of races and I very much want to handle that well. I feel your rants on the subject have helped me do that. (Well, better, at least.)

    But for what it’s worth, I have to say that while race-relations aspect of this post was edifying, the part that jumped off the page for me was “N. K. Jemisin, Gamer”. Awesome. Race, culture, whatever… now you’re one of My People. :)

    (Marvel at the self-control as I keep myself from asking specifics about your prefered game systems or character types.)

    Ultimately, I feel like my world-view is more well-rounded for following your blog, so for that reason I’m glad that you address race issues. It’s interesting. But it still counts as one of the least interesting things I know about you.

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  44. Well, I for one am glad that you have spoken your mind and come out with this. Even if someone reads this post, and declares you insane or a race-war-mongerer, at least there’s a small chance that someone will think twice before pigeon-holing someone simply based on their race and gender.

    I’m a health care professional, not a writer, but even I get tagged sometimes as THE black woman in the room – which of course comes with extra baggage. Even in a “liberal” crowd, I’m automatically popular and people want to chat simply because clearly I have some kind of brown-person insight.

    Basically all I’m saying is 1) you’re not the only one and 2) keep being you/You are appreciated for being you.


  45. I just looked up your website after finishing The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms approximately 23 minutes ago. I ordered it(with some trepidation) onto my Kindle after coming across Goodreads reviews – all insisting I should not pass your story up. And they were right! I have been glued to that book for the past two days, feeling surly and constantly muttering under my breath when I had to put it down for silly things like feeding my dogs or doing laundry.

    I had no clue as to your race or gender until I looked up your site (to see what other books of yours I could buy). Thank you for not being like Octavia Butler or any other writer except exactly who you are! Your book is one of the best fantasy books I have read in…years…yes, that sounds accurate. I loved it, and I love your voice! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  46. Here’s a secret:

    I had no idea that Yeine or Oree were “black” until I read this post. You know why? It wasn’t relevant to me. The only thing that was relevant were a few vague physical details and the fact that they looked different than the Arameri and most of Sky because they were from Some Other Land. It’s fantasy! The way that other people reacted to their difference was all I noticed, not exactly what that difference was or how it might have related to the modern world.

    This does not, in any way, demean your craptacular experience with the way that people have treated you in the publishing industry and at conventions. Instead, what I think it says is something about me: That I could care less what “race” people are from (and this applies to real and fictional people). I also don’t care what your sexual orientation, religion or political ideaology are. I care about how you behave and/or whether you are interesting to read about.

    If someone uses the fact that they are from X race as a reason to be nasty, prejudiced or bigoted to others, then they suck. If someone uses the fact that they are from X religion or X political party or X sexual orientation to be nasty, prejudiced or bigoted to others, then they suck. “I’m better because I am X” = I don’t want to be around you or read what you have to say. Otherwise, welcome to the party. :)

    However, I do very much love to read about issues like this from the perspective of the people dealing with them. I feel that it helps me better understand life from their point of view, which makes me a more understanding person.

    p.s. N.K. Jemisin means a lot more than “black woman” obviously!

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