ALL THE DANGEROUS STUFF IS ON TOP: HELEN’S QUILT AS EKPHRASIS IN THOMAS KING’S TRUTH AND BRIGHT WATER

            In her essay on Thomas King’s novel Truth and Bright Water, Deborah Weagel argues that the quilt Tecumseh’s mother Helen sews can be read as an autobiographical, social, and political text in that it is “a document that tells the story of Helen’s personal metamorphosis while she deals with various vicissitudes in her life… [and that] Helen, in exploring and expressing these various aspects of her background through quilt making, eventually finds discrete parts of herself and emerges from erasure as a Native woman” (113). Certainly, quilt making is a potentially powerful act that allows marginalized and silenced individuals, particularly women, to tell their stories and write their experiences. This paper will focus on the similarities between King’s description of Helen’s quilt and two famous examples of ekphrasis from Homer’s Iliad: the description of the shield of Achilles in Book 18 and the tapestry that Helen of Troy is seen weaving in Book 3. In studying the role that quilt-making plays in King’s novel, Weagel observes that “[t]hrough words, King creates the concept of a material, visual object, a quilt, which in turn can be read as a text with a type of rhetoric that not only expresses Helen’s autobiography but includes a social and political message as well” (114). Just as Helen has used quilting, a skill passed down to her people by white colonizers (Weagel 115), as a means of expressing her own experiences and reclaiming her identity, King has reinterpreted a technique passed down to him by a predominantly white European literary tradition in a way that represents the potential for collective healing and support among Indigenous communities. This essay will examine King’s use of ekphrasis alongside an analysis of the works of art described in order to demonstrate how the technique of ekphrasis and Helen’s quilt are methods of decolonization in the novel that directly respond to the history of colonial oppression, genocide, and violence experienced by Indigenous peoples.

            Before taking a closer look at King’s description of Helen’s quilt, it is important to situate the term ekphrasis and its history within the broader tradition of Western literature in order to understand how King reworks this technique in a decolonial way. Ekphrasis, in its most simple definition, is the description of a work of visual art within a work of literature. Ekphrasis may be the focus of the entire poem, or it may be imbedded in a larger literary work such as an epic poem or a novel. Though originally a technical term found in ancient Greek rhetorical handbooks (Zeitlin 17), as a literary technique, ekphrasis has traditionally been very flexible in its meaning and purpose. Froma I. Zeitlin points out that:

[f]rom the beginning with Homer, however, ekphrastic discourse is incorporated into a larger text as an attention-arresting device where it may function in a variety of overlapping roles–as symbol, allegory, divinatory sign, enigmatic riddle, emotional intensifier, mythic paradigm, or metatextual emblem of the work itself, or, for those less sympathetic to it, as a contrived pause in the narrative, an unnecessary and ornamental digression, or a self-indulgent showing-off in a display of rhetorical skills (20).

            Despite its many uses and forms, most classicists agree that the purpose of ekphrasis in ancient literature was essentially two-fold: it served to describe a work of art in a way that was powerful and evoked emotion in the reader or listener, but it also framed the work of art in a particular way (Goldhill 19). Put differently, ekphrasis is always from the perspective of the viewer; it is about the act of looking at a piece of art and exploring the complexity of meaning involved in such an act. It is also about identifying what a work of art may mean within a given cultural, social, or political context. Ekphrases are literary moments that are worth critical attention because they offer hints as to how art and language function within particular texts. The works of art that they describe are often symbolic in their own right, but the reflexive act of viewing the work of art is frequently just as revealing as the work of art itself. Particularly in postmodern and postcolonial works, such as King’s novel, that are highly aware of the broader context of English literary traditions, the decision to employ ekphrasis at all is a deliberate one. As readers and critics we are forced to ask ourselves in these moments what this technique contributes to the work as a whole.

            Previous scholars have observed King’s use of other allusions to Greek literature. Attention has been drawn to Tecumseh’s mother Helen, who shares a name with Helen of Troy from Homer’s Iliad, and Tecumseh’s aunt Cassie, whose name evokes the seer Cassandra from ancient Greek mythology who was blessed by the god Apollo with the gift of prophecy but cursed so that her predictions would never be heard or believed (Ridington 98). Suzanne Rintoul has argued that “King’s allusions to Greek culture are central to Truth and Bright Water‘s engagement with tensions between speaking and writing” (123). The similarities between the images on Helen’s quilt and the images on both the shield of Achilles and Helen’s tapestry make it necessary to untangle King’s use of ekphrasis in relation to these examples from Homer. In her discussion of Greek allusions, Rintoul briefly touches upon the concept of ekphrasis and rightly notes the importance of the famous shield of Achilles to King’s novel by suggesting that “as a reference to Achilles’s shield, the river [called the Shield] also calls attention to the potential life-giving properties of King’s novel itself as a form of representation… Like Truth and Bright Water, Achilles’ shield depicts two towns and concerns the usurpation of land and property” (125-26). The similarities between the Shield River and the shield of the Homeric hero have also been noted by Robin Ridington who claims that connections can be drawn between the river and the Plains Indian shields which are painted “with designs representing [a warrior’s] visionary encounters with supernatural helpers… [and] are icons that actualize the power of stories… [w]hen you view a shield, you recall the stories it represents” (90). Though insightful, both Ridington and Rintoul fail to note an obvious moment of ekphrasis in King’s novel, Helen’s quilt.

            Besides the shield of Achilles, Helen of Troy’s weaving in Book 3 is arguably the most famous example of ekphrasis that appears in The Iliad. Like Tecumseh’s mother who shares her name, Helen uses weaving as a means of expressing her experiences and identity. Early in the third book of the poem, the goddess Iris finds Homer’s Helen “weaving a great web,/ double-sized, purple, including the many struggles/ between horse-taming Trojans and bronze-corseleted Achaians/ endured on her account at the hands of Arēs” (3.125-28). Ionna Papadopoulou-Belmehdi has noted that weaving was important to women in the ancient world because “in the mythic and poetic context, exteriority yields to place of identification; invested with all the polysemy of women as literary object, weaving becomes an integral part of female persons, the metonymic account of their thoughts and fate” (39). The subjects depicted on Helen’s tapestry are significant to understanding its meaning. In weaving “the many struggles… endured on her account,” Homer’s Helen is recording the major event of her life—a war that will be remembered as both a testament to her beauty and a monument to her adulterous actions. The Trojan War began when Helen left her husband Menelaus for the beautiful Paris; whether she was abducted by Paris or seduced into leaving of her own free will, she is frequently seen as the principle cause of the conflict. In weaving an image of the war, Helen expresses guilt over her actions and sorrow for the blood that is being spilled. As John Heath states, “[w]omen can literally spin a narrative, and it is worth noting at this point that the apparent subject of their weaving is often a traditional tale of personal significance” (72). Helen’s weaving in The Iliad can be read as a kind of hyper-purposeful use of ekphrasis. Not only does the passage serve to describe the work of art that Helen has created, but the work of art itself is a way for the poet to give insight into Helen as an individual. Both Helen of Troy and King’s Helen use textiles, a form of art/labour traditionally associated with women and domestic spaces, as a means of expression. Through the tapestry of her own creation, Homer’s Helen is given a voice with which to assert her perspective and identity. Similarly, it is through the creation of her quilt that King gives Tecumseh’s mother a means to express her identity as an Indigenous woman and single mother. It is also through the quilt that King’s Helen is able to provide a “metonymic account of [her own] thoughts and fate”. As Tecumseh’s father tells him, the quilt “was a way [his] mother had of dealing with frustration and disappointment” and “[f]inding all that weird stuff and wasting time sewing it on probably helps calm her down” (64). Working on the quilt allows Tecumseh’s mother to process her feelings and experiences, just as Helen of Troy’s weaving allows her to process her captivity and guilt.

            As well-known as Helen of Troy’s tapestry may be, the most famous example of ekphrasis can be found in Book 18 of The Iliad. There are many similarities between the description of Achilles’ shield and Helen’s quilt besides their shared position as ekphrastic moments embedded within larger works of literature. Just as the shield of Achilles depicts “two cities of humankind” (18.490), Helen’s quilt is decorated with the image of two communities. Though the quilt began as one that features normative geometric designs like “squares and triangles”, the narrator Tecumseh states that by the time the present-day events of the story take place, his mother’s quilt “had begun to be a problem” (63). Tecumseh explains that:

[t]he geometric forms slowly softened and turned into freehand patterns that looked a lot like trees and mountains and people and animals, and before long, my father said you could see Truth in one corner of the quilt and Bright Water in the other with the Shield flowing through the fabrics in tiny diamonds and fancy stitching. (63)

            Just as the “two cities” are prominent images on the shield of Achilles, Helen’s quilt also features images of people and two divided communities (Rintoul 126). Homer describes one town in which wedding celebrations and court proceedings take place side by side. Significantly, the court proceedings deal with a “dispute [that] had arisen/between two men, at loggerheads over the blood-price/ of a man who’d been killed” (18.497-99). Meanwhile, “around the other city there lay two bodies of troops/… divided by two competing plans” (18.509-10). The two armies cannot decide whether they should “lay the place waste, or share between both sides/ all the wealth that this lovely city contained” (18.511-12). The conflicts that plague the two cities on Achilles’ shield mirror the conflicts that the inhabitants of Truth and Bright Water face. Although I am not positing a one-to-one correspondence between Achilles’ shield and Helen’s quilt, the conflict over “the blood-price/ of a man who’d been killed” echoes contemporary disputes between governments and North American Indigenous groups over the amount and type of compensation that must be paid in the aftermath of decades of colonial oppression, genocide, and abuse. In particular, to reference just one of the many injustices that North American Indigenous groups have faced, it recalls conflicts over the monetary settlements that the Canadian Government has offered to survivors of residential schools. Just as no amount of currency will bring back the life of the man who has been killed in the scene on Achilles’ shield, no amount of monetary payment will undo the abuse and suffering that many residential school survivors experienced or bring back the thousands of children that died in the residential school system. Nor will it undo or remove the collective and inherited trauma still felt by the children and communities of the survivors. Similarly, the city under siege by two armies mirrors the reservation of Bright Water, which is caught between its position in relation to white, colonial Canada and an imperfect self-government that has agreed to allow bio-hazardous waste to be dumped in the river that runs along the border of the reservation. Like the city on Achilles’ shield, Indigenous communities have been impacted by colonial powers that neither destroyed their people and culture outright nor left them intact. Not only has Helen’s quilt “begun to be a problem” in its incorporation of non-normative quilting materials, but the imagery of the quilt itself reveals the social, economic, and historical problems that plague Helen’s community as a result of generations of trauma and colonial oppression.

            Valentine Cunningham notes that ancient examples of ekphrasis typically emphasize the man-made nature of the works of art that they describe. As Cunningham observes:

[t]he accounts of the shields of Achilles and Aeneas keep calling attention to the gold and so forth—the mere medium of the object. There are, after all, no natural signs in view. All the objects of the ekphrastic gaze are made ones. Doubly so, in fact, for these made objects are also re-made out of words. (68)

            In fact, Achilles’ shield is not man-made at all, but forged by the god Hephaestus; the shield is so far removed from the world of mortals and the physical realm that its origins are divine (18.460-82). Unlike Achilles’ shield, which is described as consisting of five layers and having “a bright rim,/ three-layered and glinting, complete with silver baldric” (18.4-80), features that are not natural but emphasize the great skill and craft that went into its creation, Helen’s quilt deviates from the usual subject of ekphrasis in that it contains natural as well as artificial elements. Besides textiles and razor blades, Helen has also sewn organic materials into her quilt:

After a while, my father told me, my mother began coming up with a bunch of weird things to sew into the quilt.

“Chicken feet,” my father said. “And hair.”

“The porcupine quills look nice.” (63)

            The quilt offers Helen the opportunity to depict the geography of her home and the members of her family; it also allows Helen to incorporate the natural world into a visual depiction of her lived experiences. Rather than a purely artificial representation of the world in which Helen lives, her quilt merges the natural with the human-made by physically absorbing objects and organic material that have been taken from her surroundings. Florian Schwieger has suggested that Truth and Bright Water “insists on the importance of a close relationship between man and nature… King’s characters are therefore defined by an intricate sense of place and share an ancestral bond to their habitat” (36). Helen’s incorporation of natural elements into her quilt can be read as an expression of the “ancestral bond” that she experiences with the land and landscape around her. The quilt “functions as an alternative map that visualizes the geographical setting of the novel and defines the landmarks of its sacred geography” (Schwieger 42), but it is also an attempt to merge quilting, a practice first introduced by white colonizers, with the physical landscape of Helen’s surroundings.

            Not only do the images on Helen’s quilt resemble those that adorned the shield forged for Achilles by Hephaestus, but the quilt itself performs the function of a literal and metaphorical shield for Helen and the members of her family. Quilting and crafting are historically female areas of art. By equating Achilles shield, a powerful military image, with Helen’s quilt, King suggests that these “feminine” artistic pursuits are just as powerful, formidable, and necessary those that are historically associated with men. The “huge and sturdy” (18.478) shield that Achilles carries in The Iliad is designed to protect the hero in battle and to shield him from harm as he enters into combat with the Trojan hero Hector. Like a shield, the surface layer of Helen’s quilt contains metal and other objects that work to protect whoever is underneath the quilt. Alongside the organic materials and textile squares, Helen has “also fastened unexpected things to the quilt, such as the heavy metal washers that run along the outside edges and the clusters of needles that she has worked into the stitching just below the fish hooks” (63). The ‘metal washers’, with their weight and strength, transform the quilt into a metal surface. Similarly, the needles and fish hooks that Helen has sewn into her textile landscape are metal objects that are capable of pricking or harming anyone who grabs or touches the quilt without the appropriate amount of care. Through the incorporation of such objects, the quilt becomes not just a patterned collection of cloth but a surface capable of protecting the individual underneath it and harming attackers. Several characters in King’s novel comment on the shield-like features of Helen’s quilt. For example, Tecumseh’s father, Elvin, warns him about the potential of the quilt to harm those who might be on the wrong side of it:

     “Did she ever take the razor blades off?”

     “Nope, they’re still there.”

     “Not sure I’d sleep too well knowing that,” said my father. (64)

            As Helen’s son, however, Tecumseh recognizes that the quilt offers protection. He tells his father that “[a]ll the dangerous stuff is on top” (64) and is not concerned about Elvin’s warnings, stating that his “father was probably right, but it looked as if you’d be safe enough as long as you were under the quilt and weren’t moving around on the outside, trying to get in” (64). The metal objects that Helen has attached to the quilt certainly have the potential to cause harm, but as Tecumseh observes, the person beneath the quilt is perfectly safe. It is the outside world, the things that are ‘trying to get in,’ that is kept at bay by the needles, fishhooks, and razor blades. Like a shield, the quilt offers protection for those beneath it and is harmful toward those who would attack from the wrong side.

            For many Indigenous individuals and communities in Canada, the United States, and around the globe, colonialism and racial oppression have had a lasting traumatic affect. “Native Americans have experienced individual and cultural traumas that have profoundly affected their individual and communal lives,” write Shelly A. Wiechelt and Jan Gryczynski (192). For the Indigenous characters that inhabit the world of King’s novel, the European colonization of North America is not relegated to history. The towns that they live in straddle the border between the United States and Canada, as well as the border between past and present:

[though] some of these events occurred in the remote past in the lives of prior generations and generated effects that rippled across subsequent generations even unto this day[,] [o]thers occurred more recently in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. The effects of cultural traumas from the remote past intermingle with effects of recent traumas, resulting in a cumulative and compounding spiral of traumatic effects (Wiechelt and Gryczynski 192).

            Studies of trauma among members of North American Indigenous communities have revealed that subsequent generations may feel the effects of traumatic events such as cultural oppression just as powerfully, though in different ways, than their ancestors (Wiechelt and Gryczynski 192). In this way, the horrors of the past are kept alive into the present for individuals and communities, particularly those whose traumatic pasts are not acknowledged by the dominant historical record. For members of communities “who have experienced violent assaults against their culture continue to struggle to have their voices heard and their experience validated in the eyes of the world… [i]t is clear that when a culture is overwhelmed by trauma, it loses its ability to protect and support its members[;]… [s]uch has been the case with Native Americans as well as with other ethnocultural groups subjected to widespread disturbances as a result of colonization” (Wiechelt and Gryczynski 196). Current anti-oppressive trauma counselling practices that focus on members of these communities, in particular Indigenous women like Tecumseh’s mother Helen, emphasize the need for ways of “speaking about their experience with violence and oppression that validates their reality… [as well as ways of] mapping the impact of violence and oppression on their life-space” (Shepard et al. 237). As well, in many Indigenous cultures “the creative arts are seen as a part of a larger holistic model of healing that connects people to culture, spirituality, and identity” (Lu and Yuen 193). In addition to depicting the communities of Truth, the town where her estranged husband now lives, and Bright Water, the reservation where she lives with her son, Tecumseh notes that there are figures on Helen’s quilt meant to represent him and his father, Elvin (62). The quilt also includes materials such as a photograph of Helen and her sister Cassie (145), and fragments of one of Elvin’s old shirts (23). Before Elvin left her,

the quilt included more standard geometric shapes and patterns. However, as tension in the marriage increased and Helen’s husband Elvin left the home, the quilt began not only to take on less conventional free-hand shapes but also odd items, such as a rock in netting… [t]he quilt reveals these tensions and the separation of the family, with the river dividing Elvin in Truth from his wife and son in Bright Water (Weagel 116).

            The quilt comes to represent Helen’s desire to interpret and process major events in her life, such as the collapse of her marriage to Elvin. It also depicts the important relationships that she has with her son, her sister, and her estranged husband. As a map of Helen’s ‘life-space,’ the quilt is an integral part of validating her identity and as an aid in Helen’s healing process, the quilt is a metaphorical shield under which Helen may find the space to come to terms with any personal or collective trauma she might be experiencing. Above all, however, Helen’s quilt becomes a space where she can represent her family, her community, and her lived experiences.

            Weagel has noted the comfort and support that Helen’s quilt seems to offer to other characters in the novel. She cites moments in the text when both Tecumseh and his aunt Cassie look to the quilt as a soothing object. Weagel writes that

despite the fish hooks and other objects, Tecumseh’s aunt “wraps the quilt around her,” “closes her eyes,” and asks for “some fresh-squeezed orange juice and some dry toast” (120), thereby associating the textile with comfort and nurturing… Whether the quilt is viewed as dangerous or comforting, it is a symbol of hope, survival, and fortitude on the part of Helen as she makes her way through life, and as such is a social text. (122)

            When Monroe Swimmer has finished painting the church back into the landscape and hosts a giveaway around the bonfire for the members of the community, Tecumseh’s Aunt Cassie also experiences the comfort and protection of Helen’s quilt. Though it is Helen that arrives at the giveaway with the quilt around her shoulders, as Cassie burns a suitcase of baby clothes presumably once belonging to her lost daughter, Mia, into the dying embers of the bonfire, Helen “circles the fire, the quilt dragging in the grass behind her… [and] [w]hen she gets to auntie Cassie’s side, she doesn’t say a word… [s]he opens the quilt and wraps it around her sister’s shoulders” (260). While Cassie “takes each piece of clothing out of the suitcase… and casts them all into the flames” (260), Helen’s quilt shelters her from the literal elements such as the chilly night air while offering her comfort and protection as she goes through the difficult process of letting go of the past and dealing with the loss of her daughter. The quilt is a literal and figurative symbol of the support offered by the community and Cassie’s immediate family.

            This scene occurs directly following Monroe’s re-enactment of a traditional First Nation’s giveaway ceremony—a moment in the novel that is significant as it falls on the same day that the residents of Truth and Bright Water hold their annual ‘Indian Days’ celebration. Its presence at the giveaway reinforces the importance of Helen’s quilt as a decolonizing object within the novel. ‘Indian Days’ is held beginning July 1st and, as Ridington notes, “Canada’s days revert to being Indian days when Indians become active agents of their own history and begin to remove the institutions of colonial oppression” (98). While the combination of July 1st and both ‘Indian Days’ and ‘Canada Day’ certainly suggests that the Indigenous communities are reinserting their history and culture into contemporary ideas of what it means to be ‘Canadian’, King’s portrayal of the celebration is not so simple. ‘Indian Days’ requires the Indigenous members of the community to perform exaggerated stereotypes of Indigenous culture in order to make a living off of the tourists that come to town for the celebrations. The emptiness of these performances of culture are illustrated during a scene in which the wooden coyotes that Elvin has carved and intends to sell at Indian Days are left behind on the table at a diner and pushed “over the edge [of the table] and into the garbage” (38) along with the leftover food. The inclusion of Elvin’s coyotes in the refuse that are wiped away when the table is cleaned off suggests that the carvings have no more value than “the pieces of corn and the gravy and the chicken fat” (38). Rather than being valuable expressions of Elvin’s culture or identity, this passage implies that the coyotes are ‘garbage’ along with the leftover food and crumbs. Similarly, when Elvin first shows the carvings to his son, Tecumseh is unable to identify what they are intended to represent. Despite the fact that the coyote is a recognizable and prominent trickster figure, Tecumseh “can’t tell what they are supposed to be, but they sort of look like dogs” (32). Tecumseh’s inability to recognize what the carvings are meant to represent may suggest that he feels somehow removed from his culture, but it also implies that Elvin’s representation of the coyote is so inaccurate or lacking in authenticity that it is not even recognizable to members of his own family and community. The latter reading is reinforced by Elvin’s friends at the diner. Like Tecumseh, the grown men at Railman’s do not recognize that the carvings are meant to be coyotes (35). Though the expressions of culture that the members of the community portray during the Indian Days celebrations are exaggerated performances for the (white) tourists, Monroe Swimmer’s giveaway offers a more ‘genuine’ expression of Indigenous culture for the community to participate in. The ceremony is not attended by outsiders and there is no pressure to conform to a certain expectation of authenticity. Instead, the members of the Indigenous community in King’s novel are offered a space where they can come together and enjoy a traditional ceremony in a manner that makes sense to them. To put it another way, the giveaway is for the members of the Indigenous community while the ceremonies and expressions of culture at the Indian Days celebration are for outsiders who wish to experience Indigenous culture for their own pleasure. Because the Indian Days celebrations are for the pleasure of outsiders and not members of the community, the expressions of culture must conform to the expectations that these outsiders have as to what ‘authentic’ Indigenous culture looks like, tastes like, and sounds like. These outsider expectations are largely constructed around offensive cultural stereotypes created and perpetuated by a white, colonial society that has systematically oppressed Indigenous peoples and their culture. By contrast, the giveaway offers space for members of the Indigenous community to come together and counteracts the potentially harmful effects of the performance during the public ‘Indian Days’ celebrations. Similarly, the quilt that is laid across Cassie’s shoulders as she burns the clothing of her lost daughter is not a commodified object for sale; instead, it is intended to offer comfort, care, and community in the face of the harmful effects of traumatic experience and loss.

            In Truth and Bright Water, Thomas King’s description of Helen’s unusual quilt recalls two of the most famous examples of ekphrasis from the ancient world: the shield of Achilles and Helen’s weaving, both from Homer’s Iliad. Rather than following the classical model exactly, King has repurposed ekphrasis in a way that makes room for the narratives of Indigenous people by describing works of art that double as works of healing and resistance for their creators. In making her quilt, Helen has found a way to turn an art form taught to her ancestors by their white colonial oppressors into powerful armour that can be used to protect and comfort members of her family. She has also, like her Homeric namesake, created a work of art that reflects her identity, lived experiences, and inner thoughts. King’s novel is a web of past and present that reflects the historical trauma still being lived and re-lived by members of Indigenous communities. His vision, however, is not hopeless. Just as Helen is able to create armour that both protects and heals from the remnants of a colonial past, so too does King demonstrate that the literary tools of the oppressor can become powerful methods of decolonization when they are used to give validation, life, and voice to Indigenous stories.

Shannon Page
University of Toronto
WORKS CITED

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Shepard, Blythe, Linda O’Neill, and Francis Guenette. “Counselling with First Nations Women: Considerations of Oppression and Renewal.” International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling 28.3 (2006): 227-240. SpringerLINK. Web. 27 March 2015.

Weagel, Deborah. “Helen’s Quilt as Autobiographical, Social, and Political Text in Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water.” Mosaic 45.2 (2012): 113-130. Project MUSE. Web. 27 March 2015.

Wiechelt, Shelly A. and Jan Gryczynski. “Cultural and Historical Trauma among Native Americans.” Trauma: Contemporary Directions in Theory, Practice, and Research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc, 2012. Print.

Zeitlin, Froma I. “Figure: Ekphrasis.” Greece & Rome 60.1 (2013): 17-31. Cambridge Journals. Web. 27 March 2015.

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