Press kit for Hearing by Jael
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Hearing by Jael
Joyce Elbrecht and Lydia Fakundiny
Library of American Fiction, Terrace Books
Publication date: January 2006
350 pp. 6 x 9
ISBN 0-299-21300-5 Cloth $24.95
In l993 the narrator Jael B. Juba goes south to revisit historic Tarragona, Florida, where her friend and mentor, Elizabeth Harding Dumot, had restored an ante-bellum home fifteen years earlier and released the wild energies of legend and contemporary social conflict before getting out of town, her work done. Jael's mission, also one of restoration, is to return a long-hidden diary (discovered by Harding in her work on the house) to its original site, a secret room about to be opened to the public for the first time. Here, the diarist Frances Boullet and her intimates once kept a vodun sanctuary for celebrating their multiracial heritage, burying their dead, resisting the terror of the conquest of the Americas, and pondering the knowledge they draw from their variously Creolized pasts. Through the sanctuary, the diary, and the novel flow tales of colonization; trading and piracy; slave life on a plantation in North Florida; an Indian bride's miraculous legacy from the time of the Seminole Wars; Haitian uprisings and intra-American conflict; and murders, births, and hauntings in Reconstruction times and after. These tales, framed by Jael's and Harding's, stretch into a revisionary history that is joyously plural. The personal concerns of Jael B. Juba, herself at the crossroads of middle-age choices about how and where to position herself, become immersed in the wash of diary stories. A visceral love of the diary, engendered by the book's touch and feel, motivates her every move around the paratextual space of life created by reading.
Looking to America's beginnings in the coming of Europeans and Africans to this hemisphere by way of the Caribbean islands and Florida, the novel is steeped in Jael's free-lancing serio-comic narrative consciousness. No conventional historical fiction seeking to dramatize incidents from America's past, Hearing instead sounds their echoes over time in an imaginary transatlantic dialogue marking personality and place. The resulting aesthetic sense of unfamiliar turns the novel form may take lets priorities like linear sequence, and the lure to identify with characters and their memories, give way to something like a simultaneity of time-layers in the spill of stories. Story, like love or money, this novel suggests, has acquired a power over us only to be engaged by artful resistance: the resistance of an ear attuned to story's limitless appeal that, like love or money, makes us its subjects.
Explored here in imaginative termsthus, in terms inviting to a literate reading publicare issues at the forefront of current academic discussion. These issues range from the politics and economics of early "New World" exploration and settlement (the European colonial enterprise, the destruction of native people, the enslavement of Africans) to questions of gender and race, of relations between private and public life, between "fiction" and "nonfiction," between readers and writers, and between book and text. As the work of two women writing under a collaborative persona ("Jael B. Juba"), Hearing implicitly engages notions of literary authorship and authority as these are framed not only by academics but, less formally, by all readers immersed, knowingly or otherwise, in the kind of creative process opened to them by way of fiction and in artful resistance to it.
"Hearing is a wonderful, a wonder-working book, as full of incident as its predecessor The Restorationist [SUNY Press l993] and even more intricate and transgressive in its design.This comedy of lost causes fortuitously recovered, peoples joined, and houses fallen and passionately recovered poses a challenge to the South's familiar story of patriarchy lamed in its descendants by blood guilt and racial conflict. It is a book about terror and ruin that is, curiously, never far from festival at any point."Stuart Davis, Cornell University
"The primary setting for Hearing is gorgeously and powerfully evoked. . . . Beyond the characters and the landscape they inhabit lie the stories and their language. . . . The dreamlike image-laden action-packed language surrounding Nongka and Ibo alternates with the more abstract musings of both Harding and Jael; throughout, Frances's prose works to find words to cross borders between times and worlds. Language is one of the heroes of this work, and it is always pushing toward excess, toward loss of control. Language is itself a technology and it is tied in this novel to a series of meditations on technology and its relationship to past and future stories. This is a book for rereading, and one that rewards the (re)reader."Andrea Lunsford, coauthor of Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing
"Innovative and experimental in all of the best ways. At the heart of this lush labyrinthine novel is a series of mysteries. . . undulating through coil after coil of concentric circles, drawing readers in, asking them to become part of the story by hearing (and re-hearing) it. An exciting and beautifully rendered novel."Andrea Lunsford
"An extraordinary work of fiction, told with a rare combination of ripe humor and intellectual acuity. From its continually engaging dialogue through its fascinating, sometimes very funny, at other times deeply moving narratives to its profound philosophical rumination, this is a formidable accomplishment. While this novel stands on its own as a major piece of fiction, regardless of who authored it, it is also phenomenal in being coauthored."Holly Laird, author of Women Coauthors
"Possibly what makes this novel's narrative most moving to me is its simultaneously personal and socially evocative reconstruction of major dimensions of U.S. History. Its narrative enacts a gradual, highly entertaining journey into our own most concealed yet widespread past. As it develops, the story told becomes less and less familiar (less and less the public story Americans recite and record through their national holidays): beginning with the most familiar story of an at first apparently typical Southern plantation family, proceeding through a hilarious recounting of that family's carefully kept, idiosyncratic secrets of interactions with its slaves and with neighboring Indians; moving from this family into the less familiar story of a seemingly typical European trading family, as its clever men and a few fantastic women consorted with, hood-winked, and competed against Spanish, French, English, and Indian clienteles alike; and effectively climaxing with the still less familiar, sometimes exotic, yet also chilling history of a diasporic African familial lineage, with its usually underground struggles against slaveowners, exploitative colonialists, and despotic West Indian rulers. Captivating me, as a reader, by focusing on pivotal characters throughout all these stories, the novel nonetheless travels vast historical territory and made me see it invigoratingly afresh."Holly Laird
"The book conveys a vision of the relation to one another of our fear and our terror, of the power we seek and the violence we inflict upon others and ourselves. It conveys, simultaneously, an equally convincing vision of attachment. It is a beautiful book. The movements of everyday life are caught in heightened moments of descriptive detailturning a page, lifting a pen, paring an apple, fastening a seat beltgrounding an otherwise highly synthesized perception of history in familiar acts. Those acts acquire, as though suddenly, as when a jet crashes into a grand tower, a value we could not have imagined."Sandra Siegel, Cornell University
"This is a novel of a different order, hard to describe because it seems bent on resisting description and analysis and begs to be read. As if saying, you want a story, well, hear this one and this one and this one and this one, it subtly shifts the reader's gear into narrative drive. It respects its reader as one who, in our visually oriented culture, has traveled enough narrative highways to have been exposed to all from traditional to postmodern scenes and has, in the process, become a kind of sophisticate. As a writer, I especially relished the questions it raises about narrative truth and the processes involved in the construction of meaning in today's mediated reality. Henry James once remarked that "we trust to novels to maintain us in the practice of great indignations and great generosities." Although many may doubt that this statement still describes the role of novels in contemporary culture, Hearing does what James believed novels should do."Nancy Raine, author of After Silence
"Hearing engages its readers like a listening post in the psychodynamic dimension of language as it moves us into and around those places, far and wide, we call "I" or "we" or "they" or "you." "He" or "she." Or "it." This novel's marvelous accumulation of stories catches its characters in their acts of taking on pronominal meaningsand its readers (us) in the fun of such fictions heard at an almost Buddhistic distance. Jael B. Juba, the fictional authorial persona (an "I"?) for co-authors Joyce Elbrecht and Lydia Fakundiny (a "they"?) makes art out of the mystery of pronouns."Anthony Rossi, psychologist
Joyce Elbrecht and Lydia Fakundiny live and work in Ithaca, New York. Their first novel, The Restorationist: Text One, was authored by their collaborative persona, Jael B. Juba. "To live and write together in satisfaction they make an art of doubling each other," says Jael, "and my hearing yields the excess of a double tongue and a double negative." From Jael's ear comes this new novel about a long-dead woman writing her own book of life, its spill of stories pushing for a hearing among fragments and abstracts of America's history. The issue of collaboration in consigning the private space of this woman's book to the public imaginary becomes the postcolonial question of what to do with such bodily remains of dead women.
The following passages are drawn from "Scenes from a Collaboration: Becoming Jael B. Juba," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (Fall 1994). Parts of this article are in the form of a conversation between "Lydia" and "Joyce"; other parts are in the voice of Jael B. Juba:
From the conversation:
Lydia: People are always asking: How do you do it? How do you collaborate, don't your egos get in the way? It's that tension they're curious about. But they're thinking of it as friction, as crises of appropriation.
Joyce: And I was imagining it as a sort of stretching, "tension" as that which enables stretching, as in "tensile."
Lydia: Something more, then, like extension, the "I" stretchingextendingto the place of the other, the place where the other is also "I," as though "you" were somehow bypassed in the processor overpassed, like a gap across which "I" always extend myself to "I."
Joyce: But without erasing our differences, leveling our histories, because the whole productive richness of collaboration owes its possibility to those differences.
Lydia: Why would anybody want to do thatwork together in that way, living in a moving image of their own collaboration? Why do we?
Joyce: You've already said it, I think, the operative word being want. Desire. You have to desire the collaborative world under formation more than the unextended "yours" and "mine" of the old power structures.
Lydia: That has a lot to do with the pleasure of this kind of workof calling forth and using all your own resources for something other than your own power and survival.
Joyce: And why would anybody want to write a novel except as a transport by way of language from one silence to another.
Lydia: A choice of which fiction to inhabit.
Joyce: Precisely, and the point is that it is a choice.
Lydia: And a choice of fictions. The choice you make tells a lot about what fiction you're already in.
In Jael's Voice:
Collaboration as I see it is a universal process, the working together by, in, and of which all that is, ever has been, and will be is now being what it is becoming. This is the world I live ina world always settling its own collaborative hash. It might be described as the play of chance and necessity, or of chaos. Truth to tell, I call it "collaboration" only because the accident of my writing here calls for focus on the joint labor of Lydia and Joyce that became a novel.
Either woman could have written a novel (though not mine) without the other, either of them alone in that sense, without relegating the job to me; without me, there would have been either no novel or two novels produced singly in the usual silent collaboration with others, alive or dead, corporeal or textual, in on it or not. Silent collaboration, mark that. There's no choice as to our cosmic working conditions, of courseall falls into place in the collaborative chainbut perhaps there is some chance option as to whom and what we collaborate with, some possibility of a fleeting escape from the cosmic collaborative web when our work with others proceeds from moment to moment garbed in the feeling of choice.
And I, Jael B. Juba, personify the feeling of choice draping and shaping the unity of these two women at their labor. Two women reading and writing in the always fleeting freedom of my integrity. There is, to be sure, a history leading to their choice of each other as fellow workers, but no reason for it. It doubly happened, a haphazard happiness. I never fight for my existence, never seek to perpetuate it, knowing no force or consent or negotiation moves these two to the unity of their work. But if those who play together stay together, my coming and going is assured. I am the plaything of their collaboration, pleased to come and go in the knowledge that their separateness is necessary for my integrity. . . . I, Jael B. Juba, am the collective being of their collaboration, what glances off from them and cools. Their jell. And their jail, the hollow wherein they find shelter from their street lives and from their ordinary life-routines, the space wherein they confine their freedom. A jail of their jell, always cooling, melting, shifting the shape of their space together, I am the architecture of their freedom.
I don't mean to denigrate our long traditional quest for truth, but I do call it into question as the privileged ground of our lives, probably because I've become highly aware of myself as the trace of a cosmogonic motion, the flow of fiction producing the world of my existence: the very stuff of fiction, which is never more than some kind of motion spun off like pre-Socratic ripples and rumblings of truth emerging. As the fictionalizing process of two specific female individuals with discrete life histories, experiences, training, I am the truth that emerges from their work together. Fiction, not truth, is what we humankind live in, and truth arises from fiction, not the other way around. We don't ordinarily live without some sense of who and where we arewithout, that is, a self and a world (no matter how shifting and multiple these may be); but these are our basic fictive constructs, which may become truths of a kind when lived out. Or take your own name, said by some to enfold your destiny but as much the fictive assemblage of others for identifying you from birth as my own improbable name. She shall be Jael B. Juba, they said, playing around, and I am.
This is the plan: As if installing a full-length glass, I'll stand here like this, wholly exposed for your inspection, let you see off and on precisely where I am and what I'm all about, at least at the moment I appear before you. You'll get used to these close encounters, and with enough little studies from all different sides, you'll come to know me as naturally as anybody else in your life. On my part, I'll curb all urges to repeat myself (since analysis of me is not our motive), but I mean to assume enough poses to allow you to form a kind of hologram of me. That, of course,is what I'm after: the hologram. Not exposure of myself piece by piece. Nor will I let only my best sides show (that would hardly be fair); you'll have enough shots of me to know me like a book. (An added bonus: There'll be no need to appear on talk shows or give public readings to promote my work; I won't even need my picture on the dust jacket, I'll be making appearances right here before your eyes.) Thus captured, transported as it were to your viewpoint, I can't fail to see my authorial identity from where I sit.
Remember: Another page, another psycheme. It's only me.
Description of The Restorationist, Text One
Elizabeth Harding Dumotknown as Hardinga Southerner and teacher of literature resettled in the Northeastlooks back to the summer of l977 when she restored the rundown Boullet House on the Florida Gulf Coast. Her story develops as the conflict between a woman who works herself to the bone restoring this antebellum home, in which she envisions a life good in all senses, and a community corrupted in all senses by a struggle for survival and status going back to the landing of Spanish conquistadors in the Americas. It moves inescapably toward violence and murder. A decade later, Harding's friend and former student, Jael B. Juba, faithfully writes out this half-gothic, half-naturalistic tale, as driven in her own wayand as rivenby the project of authorship as her narrator was by the ordeal of restoration. Jael's is a blackly humorous self-presentation in an invented form she calls the "psycheme"; thrown among Harding's stories of restoration, Juba's psychemes are equally fraught with mystery and peril as she finds herself without a home, with no community to speak of, running-as she puts it to herselfculturally wild in the process.
This is a novel of formed chaos playfully enacting the centrality of language in late twentieth-century American art and life through the voices of two women steeped in Western cultural traditions. It is a mystery in both literal and extended senses, with attendant bafflements, horrors, attempts to get to the bottom of things: mayhem and murder; artifices of trivialization by media, our technological doubles; arrangements of power in communities and in texts; signs and selves.
"Fakundiny and Elbrecht have signed off on one splendid book: may their text increase."Bookpress
"This witty, labyrinthine postmodernist kaleidoscope is, among other things, a complex murder mystery, a feminist discourse, and a metafictional riff on the possibilities of language and imagination. With referents ranging from Freud to Foucault to Greek myth and Hamlet, the text, a dazzling riot of exfoliating prose, deconstructs eros, selves, and archetypes as it probes such themes as the trivialization of desire in a consumerist culture and the loss of individuality within a group."Publishers Weekly
"Elizabeth Harding's story is perfectly crafted. It shows talent in the handling of pace, dialogue, plot, structure and narrative. . . . The authors throw in a whole grab bag of conventional genre fiction plots, accompanied by an impressively maintained sense of menace. Even while the narrative heads into potboiler land-ghosts, murder, family feuds, Haitian refugee smuggling, the KKK and a child porno ring are just a few of the TV-miniseries-type situations that unfold as Harding begins the arduous task of restoring her crumbling houseit retains its intelligence."The Women's Review of Books
"The Restorationist is a wonderful novel that does precisely what I think a novel should doit engages questions of life and literature in a way that is entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally moving. The text works on so many levels simultaneously that there is much here for any reader to consider. Like all good fiction, it continues to function in the mind long after the reader has read the last page. My thanks to the author(s)."Welch Everman
"Author! Author! The Restorationist could best be described as a Felliniesque staging of narrative voices on a fictional proscenium placed between the conventional backdrop of the traditional novel and the orchestral pit of academic criticism. An intensely funny encounter between a property owner and a woman of letters who together turn an ante-bellum house into a post-realist experiment. Very witty, very carefully wrought, it sets into motion a dialogue process which explodes public and private spaces of the haunted house of fiction. A delight to explore and make one's own. Simply dazzling!"Nelly Furman
"This novel works upon one's habits of making sense, and its success is, in part, related to the way in which the reader is made to participate in a repeated reworking of mental material, a reworking that virtually constitutes a psychoanalytic therapy. The success is thus related to a kind of immersion not unlike that undertaken by a reader of Coover's Public Burning or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow."Carl Gutierrez-Jones
"The Restorationist: Text One is the real thing, a text of bliss: brilliant, seductive, deceitful. It's in dialogue with everybody, from the most recent poststructuralist theorist to its own readers, a thoroughly postmodern work that is alsoand for the same reasonin the great tradition of the European intellectual novel."Molly Hite
1) Is Hearing a historical fiction?
No, certainly not in the conventional sense. The imaginary residues of the past in Hearing work like distillates from literary and historical representations of America's Caribbean beginnings, extracts stored away in all their concentrated potency, ever ready to be compounded drop by drop in a semi-tropical myth. The diary does, indeed, incorporate references to historical events but is not a fictional rendering of them; rather, the novel assumes that the time and space of history provide a fictional framework for what goes on, what has passed and will come to pass. Within it grow the products of novelistic imagination (characters, events) that, inevitably, break through the walls of this fictional framework. The Restorationist enacts this break-through process formally, by means of alternation and tension between Harding's account of her restoration and Jael B. Juba's authorial "psychemes"it's as if the nature of the engagement between the two women models and prefigures all such eruption. But Hearing uncovers an alternate imaginary stage at the heart of the Boullet House, namely, the concealed sanctuary where action is played out within its limits rather than the fictional framework of history. What is played out within the sanctuary, through practice in critical rehearsals of a sort, takes on the dimensions of personal and private aesthetics as well as those of public ethics and politics.
2) Is Hearing a sequel to The Restorationist, your first novel?
Again, not in the usual sensenot in the sense of continuing a story of the characters' lives; but, yes, in the sense of continuing, as well as excavating, the story of the old Boullet House on Florida's Gulf Coast. The Restorationist details Elizabeth Harding Dumot's restoration of this ante-bellum home in 1977, the summer after the US Bicentennial. This novel follows the difficult course of her project, dramatizing how the very presence of the house, steeped in the region's past, keeps drawing people of all stations to it and exposing their vested interests and their eccentricities of character. It is written down some time afterwards by Jael B. Juba, who has never seen the Boullet House but is gripped by Harding's tales of the restorationshe is writing about something she's never experienced. Hearing is Jael's account of her visit to the Boullet House in the spring of '93 and flows from her own experience of it. Through Frances Boullet's diary, which spans the years 18601935 but reaches much further back in family memory, this novel reveals who the native inhabitants of the house werea house that conceals within itself a kind of freedom that allows them to anticipate what they will become. The house and the diary it harbors thereby challenge Jael B. Juba with the problem of howonce one is fully conscious of such freedomto live with and in it like a native. The interiority of a way of life not usually associated with an ante-bellum home.
3) May Hearing be read as the"private" story behind the more "public" one told by Harding in The Restorationist?
Yes. The latter explores a public story of restoration (and of fiction writing itself) by way of novelistic genres like the bildungsroman, the mystery, the Gothic novel, realism, etc.; it is cast in a post-modern mode of reflexive textuality, i.e. writing conventions that expose themselves as such. Hearing pushes past this kind of metafiction to a revisionary use of genre (e.g. the young Frances Boullet's "chronicle" of her family history, Jonathan's "tribal" tale of his alligator mother, Aimée's "idyll" with Krasner, Juba's "parable"). In the sanctuary, where writingcomposing the diarygoes on as part of the action played out, storytelling exhibits an excess (stories within stories within stories) that calls for critical inspection, and, finally, for some form of rest. A respite from story. A respite also granted by the sanctuary as a place cut off from the drive to make meaning, the demands of everyday living, and the beliefs and issues dominating public life. An architectural frame for meeting our human need for restorative space. In its experimental aspect, Hearing processes the flood of story to reveal its authoritarian reach as it pushes to fiction's saturation point. The novel's call for critical hearing of fiction at work in all language and all imagesall symbol-makinghints at directions of both storytelling and reading in their junctures with living. The novel is particularly concerned with this kind of critical hearing.
4) The Restorationist is subtitled Text One. Is Hearing "text two"?
No. Frances Boullet, the character central to Hearing, moves to the forefront of The Restorationist only briefly, in its final chapter paragraph, when Harding gives Frances's diary to Jael B. Juba who in that moment conceives of it as "text two", a continuation of what she's been writing. Years pass after she's left fingering the texture of the diary at the end of The Restorationist and before she tells the story of the diary in Hearing, years in which the feel of the diary held in her hands draws her into telling the story as she experiences it through her body. She tells it like she hears it. Rather than a text (always there, of course, for the reading), Hearing presents its materialthe book put together by the hands of Frances Boullet, the sanctuary, its paintings and vodun altar, Old Tarragona, the ante-bellum home, Florida and Haiti, the whole of itas the heart of the matter coming from Jael's ear.
5) Are the two novels structurally similar?
No, they're very different structurally. The Restorationist enacts Jael B. Juba's problem of how to write Harding's (oral) narrative of the restoration, that is, how to be an author while being who she is, a non-author. She solvesor dissolvesher problem in a new genre she calls "psychemes," defining these as "self-offerings, my minimal units; the smallest parts of Jael B. Juba having any meaning," and interrupting Harding's narrative with her psychemes as she pleases. Hearing may feel more accessible to most readers because any possible difficulty lies not so much in the structure as in the resonances among its multi-layered stories. But storytelling tends to hold readers, regardless of what, if anything, it's all about. And the weave of the stories, as one of our press readers, Holly Laird, points out, results in a deceptively seamless wholeunlike The Restorationist, which structurally foregrounds narrative ruptures.
6) What, then, are some similarities between the two novels?
They're linked by Frances Boullet's diary, which Harding gives to Jael at the end of The Restorationist and which forms one of two intertwined texts in Hearing (the other being Jael's account of taking the diary back to Tarragona). The novels also share a few characters, notably Jael B. Juba and Harding Dumot, but most of the characters in the diary and, thus, in Hearing are new (though some of their twentieth-century offspring inhabit The Restorationist).The stories told in the diary are also new, but the two novels share the background story of the Boullet House restoration. The story of the sanctuary and the diary, however, is told only in Hearing.
7) Is the ante-bellum house in both your novels intended to represent loss of a desirable way of life?
Not in any sense familiar to readers of novels like, say, Gone With the Wind. Remains such as the Boullet House in Old Tarragona (claiming to be America's oldest inhabited settlement) remind us materially of the entry into the New World of both Europeans and Africans. The Boullet House brings to mind this range of ante-bellum time and frames its restoration today when such remains exert their power only at an imaginary level. And it is thisplace as an imaginary residue, not historical facts but feeling-remnants from a multi-layered and multi-racial cultural past pulling and shaping all to their fitthat fuels our writing. Place as an imaginary residue is nowhere, no place in no time. The sanctuary uncovered by Harding in her restoration is the architectural frame for this no-place-in-no-time. Out of such a place comes Hearing, burning the fuel of imaginary residues; this is to say that creativity emerges from the ashes of nothing at all to make its own place. But architectural spaces for creativity are designed to have shapes and limits to meet their purposes. And Hearing dramatizes the aesthetics, ethics, and politics of creative freedom as it forms a space for itself and informs the work that goes on within that space.
8) Is Hearing a woman's book? Are your novels feminist?
As for whether our novels are feminist, we would like to think so. It's a given that both novels feature women as their main characters and that the point of view throughout both is decidedly a woman's. In this connection, we might point out that the Boullet House built by Captain Boullet (Frances' father) is a man's property while the architectural artfulness of the sanctuary and the life within are created by women. A theme working at the most fundamental level of both novels is that of how to live in the violence, both deliberate and unwitting, even innocent, of the old patriarchies and their outwash down the centuries. Our new novel takes violence as endemic to a background so established in human life it operates silently, without cease like the weather, and requires a special mode of hearing, to be held in consciousness, a putting to use and developing of our capacities to sound out its scope and subtleties. In presenting the good life created by a group of womenout of a certain freedom from ambition, from the oughts of achievement and recognition, from public forms of acceptance, both social and politicalHearing reveals the distance of such a life from traditional criteria of success.
9) How would you describe your collaboration in writing these novels? Who does what?
It would be misleading for either of us to say, "I did this and she did that." The manuscripts have been so worked and reworked that neither of us can say who did what except perhaps for a word or phrase, a sentence at most, here and there that each recognizes as the imprint of the other. After publishing The Restorationist, we wrote a piece that tries to give a genuine, detailed sense of how our collaborative work with each other proceeds. For excerpts from this piece ("Scenes from a Collaboration: Becoming Jael B. Juba") see ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S).
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