Remembering the Future: Ethnic Memory in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Yulia Kozyrakis,

FU Berlin
“I was born twice”, states the narrator of the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In terms of memory the protagonist goes to the extreme: Claiming to remember his life from the moment of his conception on, Cal/Callie even goes as far as narrating grandparents’ memories. In a compelling combination of a first- and third-person omniscient narration, this family saga of three generations of Greek immigrants from Asia Minor to the United States challenges not only the framework of the novel, but also the constructions of remembering and forgetting. In this paper I will argue that through a complex network of individual and collective memories the protagonist emerges as a medium of ethnic memory. As Maurice Halbwachs phrased it in his theory of collective memory (Halbwachs, 121), individual memory is always subject to the existing collective patterns of thought, or what Clarke et al. denoted by the German term “Landkarten der Bedeutung”, or “maps of meaning” (Clarke, 41). Although conditioned by personal perceptions, individual memories are contextualized in the framework of collective memory discourse. According to Jan Assmann, for Halbwachs collective memory should not be understood metaphorically: communities themselves do not have memories, but they condition the memories of their constituent individuals (Assmann, 36). In Middlesex, embedding ethnic memory construction in both, the American and the Greek tradition gives insight into the two different, but constantly interacting cultural paradigms as they influence the narrators’ identity formation.

In my analysis of the narrative memory construction in Middlesex I will pay special attention to the ambivalence between a poststructuralist understanding of identity and an effort to embrace several generations of the Stephanides family by common (even if at times dissonant) memories. In a comparison of fictional strategies with the actual process of Greek assimilation in the American society, I will explore the dialectics of ethnic memory construction. By evolving around remembering and forgetting, contemporary novels re-evaluate the legacy of immigrant assimilationist practices, since forgetting “is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation” (Renan, 11). The degree of assimilation of various ethnic groups is not solely, but nevertheless considerably influenced precisely by the readiness of this particular group to forget certain parts of its cultural heritage. Partly, this can be said to be the result of the particular kind of American rhetoric, which understands the American state as an “identity in progress, not so much defined by the past as directed toward the future” (Bercovitch, 81). The American promise, the immigrants’ the guiding light, valorizes the future at the cost of the past, thereby in a way bribing the individuals by the idea that past sorrows and mistakes can be healed. However, as Halbwachs argues, memory not only reconstructs the past. It also structures the present and the future, as every social idea reflects some element of the past (Halbwachs qtd. in Assmann, 42). Having arrived in the Promised Land, the immigrant groups, confronted with different paradigms of thought compared to those of their homeland, start renegotiating their own identity in order to find their own place in the new society. The reevaluation of the past which takes place in the process of identity narration is then influenced by the rhetoric of the new homeland.

“I tried to give a sense that Cal, in writing his story, is perhaps inventing his past as much as recalling it” (Weich, Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides). This comment by the author, Jeffrey Eugenides, aptly points to the heart of his epic novel: narrating history is also inventing it. On the one hand, Middlesex uses the intimate first-person narrative voice in order to get as close to the reader as possible: “I feel you out there, reader. This is the only kind of intimacy I’m comfortable with. Just the two of us, here in the dark” (Middlesex, 319). On the other hand, it is through this very intimacy, through this proximity that the reader becomes aware of the narrator/author/historian being the medium of narration, carefully selecting certain episodes and discarding others. The novels reads, if you will, as a glance through a telescope: narrow at one end, epic and detailed at the other, the author/narrator being the hand which guides the direction/place/time the telescope points to.

Put into the context of contemporary U.S. fiction, Middlesex continues the current literary trend of renegotiating the boundaries of race, ethnicity and identity, reflecting upon the postmodern understanding of these categories as socially constructed. By distancing themselves from the ossified definition of ethnicity as being grounded in an authentic core identity, authors such as Gish Jen, Chang-Rae Lee, Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides, just to name a few, try to readjust the mode in which we conceive of racial categories. The literary trend seems to go hand-in-hand with what Stuart Hall critically assessed as the emergence of “new ethnicities”.[1] According to his understanding, these new ethnicities are far from denying their ethnic roots. In fact, they reconstruct ethnic identity by using their own and their family’s past experiences, and putting them into the framework of their current surroundings. The past then becomes an indispensable resource for narrating identity, but identity is not confined to it anymore. Ethnic identity is thus conceptualized not as a given, but as “an act of cultural recovery”, which is “neither locked in the past, nor able to forget [it]” (Hall, 19). However, not being able to forget in this sense does not negate the possibility of suppressing certain episodes or events from the surface of the common or individual cultural past. The process of forgetting, blending out traumatic or undesirable elements of history, is as crucial to the overall construction of ethnic identity as the process of remembering.

In Middlesex, the ethnic “recovery” is narrated in what can arguably be called a neo-realistic manner: The novel aptly combines a realistic mode of writing with postmodern insights. It experiments with narrative techniques and reflects upon the dissolution of the subject and the fluidity of identity. Like many other contemporary novelists (DeLillo and Morrison just to name a few) Eugenides explores the terrain of the real and tries to redraw the borders between realism and postmodernism. His writing makes use of strategies of decontextualization which give realistic narration a surreal quality. This is achieved mainly by using an omniscient first-person narrator, reinventing the past of his/her grandparents. This technique profoundly modifies the aesthetic experience of reading g the text. As Fluck noted in his article on new realism,

instead of anchoring and stabilizing the textual system, as in classical realism, the representation of reality is now infected by the instabilities of the process of signification itself, so that reality, as represented in new realism, is dominated by the unstable, decentered features that also characterize the system. (Fluck, 1992:83)

In this manner the author searches for ethnic authenticity, pending between “promise of meaning and its constant deferral” (Fluck, 1992:83). Although being fully aware of the constructed nature of identity narration, the author aims at creating complex authenticity effects. I would argue, that Eugenides does not claim any sort of authenticity in the sense of being direct, first-hand, unmediated knowledge. An author raised on postmodern works would hardly be able to claim such feature in a literary work. Instead, the kind of authenticity he aims at is what Jan Berg has defined as the “paradox of representing the non-representable” (Berg, 55). Authenticity has to be represented, but it is not implied in the text: rather, it has to be reconstructed by the reader. Following Katrin Blumenkamp’s interpretation of Berg, this creates a double-layered authenticity effect of the novel. On the one hand, the reader has the feeling that she is lead through the process of ethnic identity formation, whereas on the other she seems to learn something about the socialization process of the author, which is reflected in the novel (Blumenkamp, 348). In my view the authenticity thereby is produced by what Winfried Fluck has called the transfer that takes place between the text and the reader, wherein he locates the aesthetic function of the text (Fluck, 16). The world of the text is brought to life by the work of reader’s imaginary (“imaginäre Anteile des Lesers”), the variety and uniqueness of which accounts for the multiplicity of possible text interpretation. One could maintain that if the nature of the signifier is arbitrary, then authenticity is produced by the reader connecting her own meaning to the narrated reality. Such reading experience originating from the tradition of realism at its best is modified by denying the stability and authority of the sign system it is written in.

In terms of plot the novel is very complex, which makes it difficult to summarize. For the sake of the brevity, this article will supply just enough plot information as is necessary for understanding the argument. The narrative voice of the novel, Callie, or later Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite due to a genetic deficiency caused by incest, grew up as a girl in Detroit. As a prototypical third generation Greek American, fully assimilated Callie rarely foregrounds her ethnic particularity–a lack which is taken care of by lending her voice an omniscient third-person narrative quality. There, both, Greek and American histories find their own niche, mediated by the author, himself a third-generation Greek American, born and raised in Detroit. The peculiar mixture of personal and fictional history, of ethnic and “American” culture takes the reader on an epic tour to the lieux dé memoire (to borrow from Pierre Nora) of a Greek American past. Thereby the author emerges as a kind of historian finding his way between individual, collective and fictional history.

As its point of departure the novel takes the narrators grandparents’, Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, flight from burning Smyrna (present-day Izmir) to the United States in 1922. On their escape the siblings Lefty and Desdemona, who have long been trying to deny their romantic feelings for each other, give in to their passion and get married on the ship heading for the U.S. Thus, Callie/Cal’s gene deficiency making her/him a hermaphrodite is led back to incest. The novel is narrated by the grown-up Cal, optically male, who is not only looking back at his childhood as a girl, but in an omniscient point-of-view is also unfolding before our eyes the Stephanides family story on both sides of the ocean; the story, which, as the narrator puts it “begins a long time ago, in another language, and you have to read it from the beginning to get to the end, which is my arrival. As so now, having been born, I’m going to rewind the film” (Middlesex, 20).

 

In Middlesex we are faced with a profound engagement with the questions of individual, collective and historicized memory. Through the narrator Cal/Callie the novel seeks a way to come to terms with the authorship of memory narration. By telling the family history of three generations of the Stephanides family through an aptly constructed omniscient first-person narrator not unlike Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Eugenides breeches the gap between collective and individual memory. Along the lines of Maurice Halbwachs, who argued that “individual memory can only be recalled in the social framework within which it is constructed” (qtd. in Crane, 1376) the author lets his high-school memories and his immigrant heritage melt into the fictional narration of Cal/Callie.

Reflecting upon poststructuralist theory, the novel explores the entanglement of individual history with the institutionalized one. According to Foucault, “the system of limits and exclusion which we practice without knowing it” is the source of individual’s imprisonment and this to a great extent defines our process of identification (Foucault, 73). I would argue that in Middlesex Eugenides explores the boundaries of ethnic identification through the protagonist’s gender identification, thereby pointing to the somewhat similar regulatory nature of gender and ethnic assimilation practices. As a hermaphrodite Cal(lie) metaphorically stands for an ethnic subject in a society, which has to revise its understanding of ethnicity. In the United States the ethnic subject is always a dual one existing in the borderland between her own self-perception and its reception by the constitutive (often regulatory) outside. A hermaphrodite is not only a psychologically, but also a physiologically split subject, which has to come to terms with its duality. It is debatable whether Eugenides By centering his new immigrant novel not on the immigrant, but on the magical omniscient first-person subject of split identity Eugenides has brought fresh wind into the genre.

The protagonist’s dual nature aptly describes the conflicting situation of belonging to (in this case) two different cultures. The arbitrariness of the institutional definition of gender (or in analogy, ethnic) boundaries is explicitly juxtaposed to the inner insecurity of the subject’s awakening to his/her gender (or ethnic) identity in the last third of the novel. There Callie is taken to the Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic to have her sex and gender determined by a Dr. Peter Luce. By means of interviews (the so-called “psychological narratives” (Middlesex, 417)) which he asks Callie to write, as well as through medical investigations Dr. Luce comes to the conclusion that Callie is a girl and needs light surgery in order to “fix” her sex. Here Eugenides alludes to the late 1960s boom around sex change operations, first performed at the John Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic (note the almost identical name of the clinic in Middlesex). For about a decade, surgery seemed to be the miraculous solution for transsexualism, until in the late 70s many scholars and surgeons brought about evidence of deep psychological conflicts that were left unsolved by sex change operations.

Through Callie the arbitrariness of the medical decision on what male, or female identity is, is brought close to the reader. Partly because of being a shy teenager, exposed to numerous intimate medical investigations by groups of doctors, and partly because of writing for an audience (Dr. Luce), she fakes her psychological narratives, which later heavily influence Dr. Luce’s decision about her biological sex. Thus, while Callie describes her outer self, hiding her intimate thoughts and desires, she discovers that constructing the “all-American daughter” her parents wanted her to be is much more fun than describing her true feelings. “Half the time I wrote like bad George Eliot, the other half like bad Salinger. (…) I also knew that … if I seemed normal enough he [Dr. Luce] might send me back home” (Middlesex, 418). Alluding to the preformed quality of such psychological narratives[2] the novel points to the corrupted nature of such testimonials, which usually serve as primary point of departure in medical analysis. Nevertheless, despite being a critique of the institutionalized discourse on gender, this confrontation with the official view, the fact of being spoken for, causes Callie to “wake up” and reconsider her behavior radically. It seems that only by being exposed to the binary either/or medical (and social) reasoning the protagonist is motivated to regain control over his/her own situation. Although one might still argue that it is the male part of Callie that is taking over, there are still numerous allusions to the strong influence of Callie’s feminine side which is from then on visibly hidden, but internally present. As the narrator puts it, commenting on her allegedly feminine circular prose style as opposed to the male linear narration: “All I know is this: despite my androgenized brain, there’s an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell” (20). In this sentence we can also trace the authorial intention: As Eugenides states in one of his interviews, possessing both, a feminine and a masculine side is a necessity of being an author, wishing to create a complex novel and thus, a hermaphrodite narrator is able to speak for both.

In a unique way Eugenides succeeds in indirectly exploring the issue of racial identity through gender. If we pursue the earlier mentioned metaphor of Callie’s hermaphrodism as pointing to her ethnic heritage, then it seems to be no coincidence that the genetic defect of the Stephanides family skips the protagonist’s father, but displays itself in Callie. As general pattern of immigrant assimilation shows, usually the second generation of immigrants succeeds to assimilate so perfectly into the American society that normally the third generation does not even speak the language of the immigrants’ country of origin.[3] Interestingly enough it is the fully assimilated third generation, just like Callie (and the author himself) that rediscovers the interest in its ethnic origins. Furthermore, on a metafictional level, by describing Cal(lie) as writing consciously like bad George Eliot, or bad Salinger, Eugenides not only reflects upon the constructed nature of ethnic narratives, but also ponders upon his own role as an ethnic author. His own narration is to an extent influenced by what the reader (or Dr. Luce in the novel) is expecting to find in an ethnic novel. In a way, Eugenides did escape the “usual” path of becoming an acclaimed “ethnic” author. As opposed to such typical literary career, generally starting with a break-through ethnic novel and then going on to writing whatever the author likes, Eugenides’s debut novel The Virgin Suicides was not ethnic fiction. Nevertheless, when writing an epic novel on ethnic heritage in American society, the author was aware of some of the reader expectations, one of them being a kind of historic validity of the ethnic narrative. In order to prevent the “fraudulent omniscience of most historic novels” Eugenides chose to lend his narration the “lightness of tone”, a sort of postmodern self-consciousness of narration (Weich, Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides).

Such a convergence between the author role as an individual and as a historian has also been reassessed in critical theory. In her essay “Writing the Individual Back into the Collective Memory”, Susan A. Crane pleads for reconciling the gap between collective and historical memory by conceptualizing the role of historians not as sites of external representation, but as “historically conscious individuals claiming their historical knowledge as part of personal, lived experience”, and thus also a part of collective memory (Crane, 1383). In my opinion this is something that becomes evident in Eugenides’ approach to his novel. Obviously, most novelists do extensive research while writing fiction. What is interesting in Eugenides is how he, being a third generation Greek American, is writing on Greek immigrants’ assimilation in the United States using partly his own personal family knowledge, partly analyzing newspaper articles, textbooks and other sources of official representation. Such a amalgamation of individual, collective and institutional memory can be traced in the novel’s very personal account of the immigrant Lefty Stephanides participating enthusiastically in the Melting Pot Ceremony at the Henry Ford English School. There, among other immigrant workers, he symbolically steps into the melting pot in his traditional Greek clothing and comes out transformed, wearing a blue light suit and carrying an American flag. This episode has to be seen through the lens of being recorded historical evidence, carefully chosen and formulated by the media (newspaper article) and later found more by chance than by intention by the author in a public library. Thus, an originally personal experience of many immigrants was at some point fixed, became a historicized event of individual and collective memory, and then resurfaced once again as a personal account in a work of fiction.

 

In terms of ethnic memory Greek immigrants have undergone a particularly interesting assimilation process. Usually defined as non-white throughout the immigration history of the U.S., Greeks (and other Southern and Eastern Europeans) were less desirable immigrants in the eyes of the U.S. government and their influx was restricted by set quotas.[4] And here we are facing a phenomenon: on the one hand, the Greeks were marked ethnic in the eyes of the law. On the other hand, being the cradle of Western thought, ancient Greece had its central role in forming the ideological basis of the American society, shaping its very values. In order to assimilate into the white U.S. population the Greek community has pursued a path of playing down the issue of Southern European ethnicity and simultaneously claiming the status of being Plato’s distant progeny. As shown by Yiorgos Anagnostou in his essay “Forget the Past, Remember the Ancestors!”, AHEPA (the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), founded in 1922, has continuously worked on spreading the understanding of Hellenic American identity as “ur-American”: “as racial descendants and therefore cultural inheritors of classical Greece, Greek immigrants were not only endowed with the potential to embrace ‘Americanness’; they had access to ‘ur-Americannes’” (Anagnostou, 38). AHEPA understood the importance of public self-representation in America (Anagnostou, 39) and promoted a positive, “American” image of Greek immigrants. Among its assimilation strategies were for instance making English the official language of the association, organizing common WASP and Greek communal meetings and festivities, fostering contacts to local municipal and religious authorities. Even the names of its sub-organizations, created in the late 1920s are indicative of the mission statement: The Daughters of Penelope, The Sons of Pericles and others. As Anagnostou points out, AHEPA meticulously analyzed various elements of Greek cultural heritage, emphasizing those regarded compatible with the ideal of “Americanness”, and disposing of those associated with non-whiteness. This process of “cultural amnesia” (or, as Lowenthal calls it, the “politics of forgetting”[5] (qtd. in Anagnostou, 42)) was central to establishing Greek American identity. Being not the only, but certainly one of the influential factors in Greek assimilation, it contributed to the relative invisibility of present day Greek Americans (a celebrity example: consider the “all-American” image of Jennifer Aniston from the TV-series Friends or Billy Zane–Rose’s fiancé in the Titanic).

This pattern of emphasizing Hellenic roots can also be traced in Middlesex. Due to the considerable gap between the immigrants’ Hellenic self-perception, and the welcoming country’s attitude towards them as uncivilized aliens, on a day-to-day basis establishing close connection to classic Greece proved difficult. Stemming from Asia Minor the Stephanides and their relatives, Sourmelina and Jimmy Zizmo, faced certain difficulties persuading the others of their civilized heritage. While working for the Ford Motor Company, Lefty and Jimmy were visited at home by the employees of the Ford Sociological Department, who were instructed to check the hygienic procedures of immigrant workers. While Lefty in his striving for assimilation was enthusiastically undergoing humiliating procedures such as the inspection of bed linens, toilet seats and tooth brushing technique, Jimmy Zizmo was far less enthralled by the visit. While Lefty, “grinning hideously, […] moved the toothbrush up and down in his dry mouth” asking “Like this?”, Jimmy tried to enlighten Henry Ford’s employees on Anglo-Saxon history:

Listen to me,” Zizmo said. “The Greeks built the Parthenon and the Egyptians built the pyramids back when the Anglo-Saxons were still dressing in animal skins (Middlesex, 101).

Predictably, the employees were not particularly impressed by this piece of information.

A popular culture take on this view has recently been demonstrated in Hollywood’s film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Throughout the film, the father of the Greek American protagonist is made fun of for trying to trace every English word or concept back to its alleged Greek origins. So, in a reconciliation attempt he tries to trace the WASP bridegroom’s last name Miller back to the word milo, meaning apple. Stating that his own family name is Portokalos, meaning orange, he concludes that the families are “apples and oranges. We’re different, but, in the end, we’re all fruit”.[6] Jokes aside, the present day mission statement of AHEPA is still indicative of the ongoing assimilation effort. It reads:

AHEPA members are proud of the contributions the ancient Greeks gifted to Western Civilization. As Americans, we share many of the values put forth by them: civic responsibility, philanthropy, education, family and individual excellence, and the ideals of democracy. This is the essence of our heritage. This is the core of our mission.[7]

Classical Greece is something that the author himself, in a move of pre-emptive self-criticism, weaves into his narration: “Sorry, if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too”. (Middlesex, 4) Also, nearly all references to Callie’s Greek origin are limited to literature class’s classics curriculum, like for instance in the following address by her teacher: “Miss Stephanides, […] since you hail from Homer’s own land, would you be so kind as to read aloud?” (Middlesex, 322).

 

Re-assessing one’s own ethnic heritage is an important pillar of the negotiation of ethnic boundaries, a dialectic process pending between the ethnic group’s own self-perception and the dominant group’s attitude towards it. Ethnicity is also tightly connected to place and audience, and as Joane Nagel formulates in her essay “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture”,

ethnicity changes situationally, [i.e.] the individual carries a portfolio of ethnic identities that are more or less salient in various situations and vis-à-vis various audiences. As audiences change, the socially-defined array of ethnic choices open to the individual changes (154).

The attitude of the audience (i.e. the dominant group) in the United States has considerably changed in the course of the 20th century, and likewise have the choices of possible ethnic self-perception changed. Whereas the most plausible strategy of Greek immigrants (Cal’s grandparents) has been to deemphasize their difference, or, speaking in racial terms, their ‘blackness’, the third generation of immigrant descent can now allow themselves to highlight exotic difference and retract ethnic roots. In the line of this cultural trend, films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Everything is Illuminated, or novels like Middlesex and many others are able to disclose ethnic specificity without having to endanger their ethnic community’s already achieved social standing as an established, assimilated ethnic group within the United States. In this process, the term ethnicity acquires certain ambiguity, since it is often understood more as a “state of mind” (Bakalian, qtd. in Nagel, 154), sparing the individual of the necessity to speak the language, exercise a certain religion, belong to ethnic organization etc. in order to be able to claim ethnicity. Culturally specific knowledge is viewed as a possible, but not an indispensable element in the construction of ethnic belonging. Ethnicity, then, becomes a sort of loose signifier into which the individual can inscribe his/her own version of the collective past, present and future.

Evolving around remembering and forgetting, contemporary novels on race in general and Middlesex in particular re-evaluate the legacy of immigrant assimilation practices. Through Cal(lie) the novel attempts to cast a look at the distant past, hidden thoughts, and masked fears. Although post-structural theory’s insights on the social and cultural construction of identity cannot be ignored, Eugenides attempts to liberate Cal/Callie from his/her surroundings, insisting on a solid core of selfhood despite its genetic randomness and cultural unpredictability. This core identity can be discovered by nearing or distancing oneself from one’s surroundings. Most importantly, since marginalized groups often tend to insist on remembering that, which is left out of the dominant group’s memory (Neumann, 112), one has to explore what exactly is left out, or to say it in Foucault’s words, the society’s contre-mémoir. In Middlesex, the individual’s roots in the communal history are brought back onto the map of identity construction; it is this not always easily identifiable core, intrinsic in the hyphenated identity that Eugenides tries to trace. And who is more suited to tell this story than a contemporary gender-confused Calliope, the mythical beautifully-voiced muse of epic poetry, the daughter of Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and Mnemosyne, the personification of memory?

Endnotes

[1] For his discussion of the concept of the ‘new ethnicities’ please check Stuart Hall’s contribution “New Ethnicities” in Race, Culture and Difference, A. Rattansi and J. Donald (Eds.), Sage Publications, 1992, 252-260.

[2] In analogy to Jan Assmann’s understanding of the preformed nature of cultural memory, which he describes with a German word Geformtheit, psychological narratives are likewise preformed by writing, images and rites. (Assmann, 14.) In the novel the protagonist explicitly mentions the influence of well-known writers on her medical narratives.

[3] Among others, Richard Alba discusses the evidence for this assimilation pattern in his article Bilinigualism Persists, but English Still Dominates,

http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?id=282, Feb 2005. For a broader analysis see his book Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigraion, coedited by Victor Nee, Cambringe (Mass.), Harvard UP, 2005.
[4] Immigration Act of 1917 (Asiatic Barred Zone Act; also made among other feeble-minded persons, polygamists, criminals non-eligible for immigration); Immigration Act of 1924 (including National Origins Quota; Asian Exclusion Act)

[5] Lowenthal’s argument is mainly concerned with the actual (i.e.) physiologically conditioned processes of remembering and forgetting, when he argues that it would be impossible to remember “more than just a small fraction of our past” (Lowenthal, 205). Therefore, forgetting and discarding whole events is indispensable to memory individual construction. In analogy, his argument can be validly extended to the concept of collective memory, as it would also be impossible to recollect every single collective event.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Big_Fat_Greek_Wedding.

[7] AHEPA official website.

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