Friday, April 1, 2011

Everything is a Memory Disorder

An Author-on-Author Interview Between Daniel Kine and Lidia Yuknavitch
I’ve never had any real interest in memoirs.  The majority of the people who write them these days have nothing to say, and the very few that do have an interesting story to tell fail at doing so, for the simple reason that--nine times out of ten--they’re not writers.  Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest work, a memoir entitled The Chronology of Water (now available from Hawthorne Books) is not an exception to this statistic; rather, it is a redefinition of what has come to be considered the modern memoir.  “Life is not linear,” Yuknavitch explains in this graceful expedition into the human condition.  Of course, everything one might expect from a memoir—struggle, sorrow, recklessness, redemption—is there.  However, Yuknavitch’s elegance and character is anything but familiar when it comes to this genre.  
Her publisher, Hawthorne books of Portland, Oregon, describes The Chronology of Water as “Not your mother’s memoir.”  Yet, it is not the content of this book that sets it apart from other memoirs; rather it is Lidia Yuknavitch’s remarkably versatile range and talent as a writer.  In the end, what distinguishes The Chronology of Water from most of the books being written right now is the undeniable fact that Lidia Yuknavitch is an important writer.
Still, it doesn’t hurt that the details of Yuknavitch’s life make for an absorbing plot, which turns out to be more interesting than most modern fiction.  She’s shared a novel with Ken Kesey, a bed with Kathy Acker, and spends her spare time with a writing group that includes Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain and Monica Drake.  Her prose is irreverent and graceful, delivered with an honest precision that makes every word that the woman puts to the page breathe.   In short, the modern memoir begins and ends with what Lidia Yuknavitch has done with The Chronology of Water.
I had the opportunity to ask Mrs. Yuknavitch a few questions about her life and work, which she was kind enough to respond to with the same brilliance and attention to detail one might expect from the voice behind The Chronology of Water
The Chronology of Water is available now from Hawthorne Books.  Lidia Yuknavitch is also the author of two previous works entitled, Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press) and Liberty’s Excess (Fiction Collective 2).  She will be reading at Powell’s in Portland on Wednesday April 6th at 7:30 pm.  Also, check her website for upcoming dates from her national book tour, happening now.    
                                                                                                            —Daniel Kine
Daniel Kine:  
A lot of things really struck me about your book, but I’d have to say
that one of the most prevailing themes, for me at least, was your
approach to memory.  It’s a delicate and painful issue, and you took
it on from a lot of different aspects, both beautifully and

Certain passages led me to think of what Proust said about memories
being written by paupers and rewritten by kings.  I think, to say
something like that, he obviously had to have been aware of what he
was saying, of the way we look back at devastating experiences, which seems to have been a big part of your process with Chronology of Water.  Keeping that in mind, I think that rewriting experience into the memories we’d prefer is not only an easy and comfortable way of deluding ourselves, but also a more common approach to self-narrative
and autobiographical memory.

You, on the other hand, with The Chronology of Water, seemed to do just the opposite.  You appeared to have, if anything, intensified your own suffering by not only reliving it, but by carefully examining, thus, to an extent, reliving your own suffering.  The result was a beautiful piece of literature, a truly honest and important chronicling of the human condition.  But my question, I guess, is how much  did that process take out of you, what was it like for you; and is it an approach—writing nonfiction,  I mean—you see yourself returning to with future work?
Lidia Yuknavitch:  Let me say first what a joy your question is, because I get to talk about Proust and memory, two of my very favorite subjects.  I first read Proust in my twenties.  I remember it physically, which I how I remember most things.  I thought I might shit my pants. I read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (The English translated title is Memory of Things Past but that isn’t really what that phrase says).  I was absolutely taken by the idea of involuntary memory—which in and of itself is fascinating.  But that isn’t what ravaged me.  What ravaged me was for utter formal annihilation of what had come before.  In place of plot and character driven action, Proust went gonzo internal on their asses.  In place of that he invented an intricate web made of writing, corporeal experience, and memory.  The famous madeleine scene in particular brings the body, not character, to the forefront, as well as subconscious processes and writing. To this day it gives me shivers to read it.  I own an ancient set of all the volumes that is very dear to me.  Now I’ll say this:  I’m no Proust.
However.  What reading Proust “unlocked” for me was an interest in the relationship between how language works, how the subconscious works, and the question of how are we embodied?
What I went on to “study” in undergraduate and graduate school had a great deal to do with reading Proust.  But your question when you referenced Proust is about “how we look back.”  And you are quite astute to point to my deep refusal to gravitate toward the conventional forms available to me in terms of contemporary memoir, although my book does participate to a certain extent in those conventions.  What I wanted to foreground was the corporeal.  Here is why.  The difficult experiences I have had in my life have come through my body—exactly like bullets or knives.  I am not the only one who feels this way.  Pain and grief bring the body to its very edges of existence—and I am keenly aware that I am only giving voice to something vast numbers of people feel.  There is nothing precious about my suffering.  But there is something … bothersome to me about the way some stories cover over the body in favor of the conventions of storytelling.  It privileges some bodies and erases others.  For instance, women who have had abortions or miscarriages or stillbirths are asked to swallow their stories whole, to keep quite, to move on and have more children to take up the space left where death happened.  To corporeally de-remember their stories and enter into the cult of good citizenship and motherhood and a scripted story people can live with easier. To me this is a violence against their very bodies.  So in my own work, not only did I hit a point where I had to say, fuck it, I can’t use the regular conventions to tell this story, good bye chance at an agent or giant publishing contract, I also hit a point where I quite consciously decided put the body up front no matter the consequences.
Too, I created “wordbody” environments that are meant to place the reader in the “space” of the body (like the second chapter).  Because language can go there, if you let it. I was not, though, trying to extend or relive my suffering.  The great river of suffering moves through us all.  Mine is a stream in those larger waters.  On the other hand.  Anyone considering writing memoir, or creative nonfiction, or any type of “get nitty gritty with yourself “ writing better fucking prepare themselves for explorations into the shadow self.  I had nightmares writing this book.  Like diving down into the ocean / subconscious / family romance.
Luckily I brought a knife.
But I’d say too, and you shouldn’t have asked me about memory if you wanted a shorter answer, an entirely new revelation happened to me when my father lost his memory.  Gone was everything he’d ever done to me or with me, good or bad.  Gone was my life as his daughter.  Vanished into nothing.  There was no way to get it back. 
Because of the radical effect that had on me and my sanity, I became something of a student of memory.  And that led me to neuroscience and biochemistry.  Guess what.  In terms of science, memory doesn’t “work” anything like we wish it did.  The more you remember something?  The farther away you get from its actuality as an event.  The reason is that each time you remember something, basically the narrativizing functions of your brain make subtle changes, and the first memory deteriorates bit by bit.  Your retellings are also fraught with changes in who you are as you age, what your values and experiences are, what you need to be true to fit the story of your life.  You also draw from language and literature conventions to give the story its composition and tone, its shape and effect and affect.
That is why at this point in time I seen next to no difference between fiction and nonfiction, though it makes people unhappy when I say things like that.  Also sometimes arguments ensue.
The part of the brain that is responsible for memory?  Turns out it’s right next to the part responsible for imagination.

DK:   I remember reading in the interview you did with Rhonda Hughes of how one of the ways you escaped the terror of your childhood was through books and music and art. There are some really poignant and beautifully constructed passages in The Chronology of water where you talk about the time you spent with Ken Kesey and Kathy Acker, two amazing artists and individuals who, in one way or another, really pushed you and your work. However, in the book you seemed to be writing about two very specific times in your life, so I’m curious to know whether there are any other art or artists whose life or work guided you through your life, and who you still turn to presently when seeking to escape or to be pushed?
LY:  Absolutely.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker –I don’t know how I understood how to listen to Jazz…jazz music was not played in my home, my parents did not play instruments, though I played the piano and then the clarinet growing up. And I’m a white honky bitch. But the music just…hmmmm…I could hear that they had taken everything about music apart and moved it around and put it back together.

I could hear improvisation. That word, that concept, that beautiful philosophy played out in music stayed with me forever. It’s profound, what they gave America. We didn’t deserve it. It’s as if the torturers were given grace, not from god, but from the tortured, as if to say, beauty is bigger than you.

Long before books got under my skin, paintings and painters did. To this day I am most moved by the visual language and physical experience of painting, not necessarily writing. In particular, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaller, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko. Abstract expressionism in particular makes me feel alive through my whole body.

At the Tate I sat in the Mark Rothko room on a naugahide bench and cried for about an hour. Just total release. Giant paintings of red. Or rust. Or deep blood to purple. I heard an onlooker occasionally say something like “but what is it of?” I love that response. It’s so boneheaded and profound at the same time. For me though the better question is always “what happened to me?” That’s why I’m a little itchy about art criticism or even literary criticism…it leaves out the body.

I remember my husband at the time kept asking me what was wrong with me. I just looked at him like he was out of his god damned mind.
I seriously seriously considered pressing my body up against the Francis Bacon paintings. I almost couldn’t not. I don’t really know how to explain that feeling. That compulsion. One time I got super duper drunk and painted oil paint on my whole body and got down on a canvas and made a body press—face, shoulders, tits, torso, twat, thighs, knees, feet, arms, hands…it wasn’t the best idea to put toxic pigments on my body and I nearly ruined the shower and my skin but it was glorious.

I’ve often tried to create word environments that secretly aim to situate the reader something like inside a painting. It’s ok with me that no one knows that, or feels it. What matters is the fact that I’m thinking that as I paint words.
I paint too, but I’m a novice. I’m just in love with the feeling of it. I love walking up to a giant white canvas. It’s so physical. It beats the fuck out of approaching a person. It’s like approaching a vast imaginary space. Then when you bring your body to that space with oil paint—and if you work large it is entirely corporeal—you use your whole body—it’s exhausting and sexual and demanding and athletic and terrible and orgasmic—nothing in life gives me that feeling quite as entirely as painting does. Maybe when I’m an old lady (like next year) I will take it up more full time. I think old ladies
make great painters.

Writing for me came out of my love for painting. Hands down.

Sometimes I take my son out of school and take him to the painting studio…he always acts like he’s been doing it forever. So at ease. He’s ten.

I understand writing as image, rhythm, sound, composition, and the physical micromovements and intensities of corporeal and psychic existence.

The writers that first blew the top of my head off were William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, the Marquis de Sade, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe Grillet, Gertrude Stein, Georges Battaile, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Mina Loy, notice a pattern yet?

All the musicians and all the painters and all the writers deconstructed the “realities” of their experiences and reordered them. Radically. And all of them understood language that formal innovation could release us from the tyranny of “realism.” For me their writing matches how it feels to be alive and living in the world. It’s precise.

Then there are all the poets…long list. Poetry makes “sense” to me quicker than prose because it’s more like painting and music. It’s physically direct. The affect of poetry enters my body like mainlining.

And don’t even get me started on film.

The first time I read Marguerite Duras’ The Lover I had to lie down on the ground. I literally got dizzy.
The first time I read Kathy Acker I quit school, I quit the relationship I was in, I quit eating, I quit living where I was living. I had to change my life that moment. The urgency of writing sometimes does that—I mean I love how that can happen to you as a reader. Not that I like it all the time, but from time to time, I like to be ravaged as a reader.  I’m not very good at the “who are you reading now” or “who do you consider the writers who are writing now that push and challenge you” because I feel like every individual needs to explore and discover that on their own. If I say, “go read so and so,” what does that mean? It means so and so happened to me. Changed my life. Wrecked it. Or put it back together. But I have no idea who should or will happen to you. I just think when it happens, you should live it all the way through your life for as long as you can. Books happen to you. They just do.

DK:   Well put.  In the chapter that starts out, “Kissed a girl and made me cry,” you go into some really beautiful descriptions regarding one aspect of your relationship with your father. You go into more corporeal descriptions of him as a man. You also talk about an illness during this same time, and you say that “there are times when a soul has to leave a body, a time that is not death.” During your delirium, you seem to see your father in a different light, but as soon as your health returns you reenter the water and, in your words, swim away from, among other things, your father. It made me think of Schopenhauer saying that to survive one must “withdraw from the struggle of life, so as to obtain release from the misery which the struggle imposes on everything.” So, I’m curious to know if, since the majority of your writing—in my opinion—is something of a corporal experience for the reader, whether you see your ultimate escape as your writing, or swimming—the way you feel when you’re in the water—or if these two things are one-in-the-same for you?

LY: What a stunning question. Both in terms of wonderfulness and in terms of “to stun,” because it made me stop and stare at it for a long time. I love that Schopenhauer line. And yet, maybe suffering doesn’t ever leave a body, even when we think we “escape,” you know? It’s in the skin. The DNA. It recedes or comes forward, I think, for everyone (with the exception of strange zombie numb lifeless people).
But yes, water and writing seem to me to be very much the same. They provide me with a freedom, and escape, from the struggle of difficult physical and psychic existence…from being in the world with “the peoples”…ha. You know. There is deep suffering, and then for some of us, just “being” and staying around and doing it with other people is difficult. So in the water my physical body is free from both how awkward I feel physically in the world, and from chronic spine pain, and from past damages, and from thinking. And in writing I am free that way too. Escape then, yes. But too, I think swimming and writing also take me EVEN DEEPER into experience. Kind of paradoxical, isn’t it. I’m never quite convinced life is more real than art. I know it’s a bit of a deranged thing to say, but it’s true for me. The world of the imaginary isn’t LESS real to me than the so-called REAL world. In fact “reality” should always I think have quotes around it. It’s become entirely ironic. I do not mean terrible crises or suffering or great joy in everyday life. I mean what passes for life in the surface sense. Media being and a purchased and consumed existence. Do you know what I mean? Only when I dive down into books or paintings or music or swimming or writing can I get to anything remotely resembling an authentic corporeal pulse and sting.
I suppose the same could be said for me about love, sex, and altered states…but there is a danger in taking those experiences to their edges because you could hurt people you mean to love. You can take writing and swimming (and here I mean being in water as a meditative practice) to their edges and not risk damaging those you love. If my book hurts anyone, they can burn it in a cleansing ritual and spit on my name. Put it back to matter. And no one in the pool is hurt by the seal girl next to them in the blue…So yes. How I feel in the water is very much like how I feel in writing. Partly escape. Partly going down deeper. Partly how I stay in the world.

DK:  The first time I read The Chronology of Water I was pretty much stopped in my tracks by what you said about Kathy Acker. You called her the female William Burroughs. The moment I read that I ran straight down to Powell’ s and bought two of her books, and started reading them the same night. You weren’t exaggerating, either. Reading Ms. Acker’ s work, and then going back and reading The Chronology of Water again gave me something of a better understanding of where you were coming from, both as an artist and as a person. You obviously have a lot of respect for her...I think I even
remember you telling me that, at one point, you walked into Powell’ s and stuck a few “ Oregon Book Award Finalist” stickers on her books. The way you approached both her and her work in your memoir made me think of the old saying, “ My idols walk next to me...I look over and then they fade away.” Keeping that in mind, I’ m curious to know how it makes you feel to have come far enough in your own career as a writer to imagine the possibility of your work reaching more of an audience than the work of one of your idols? Has meeting Ms. Acker and having gotten to know her on such an intimate level affected the way you see yourself approaching this next step of your career—a step where, in my opinion, you’ re going to have to either ignore or embrace the fact that your name is out there, and there are more than a few people anticipating future work from you?

LY: Well a little bit this question makes me itch. I say that because I don’ t live in a reality where my writing will ever reach more of an audience than the work of, say, Kathy Acker. I mean she had a pretty giant audience. I’ ve always had a tiny audience…ha. Which has been kind of nice, since I know most of my readers on a first and last name basis! So I’ m not sure how to answer this. I’ d have to imagine something completely foreign to me, something I don’ t know how to dream up.

There is a chapter in COW where I talk about how sometimes damaged people don’ t know how to look up to dream. How we can’ t imagine ourselves “ succeeding” or even being authentically special in a small way, which is probably the bigger tragedy. And I talk about too how opportunities have come my way in my life that were large or special and I either froze, became invisible, or fucked it up somehow. I didn’ t do those things because I’ m a masochist, though I do have a fairly strong masochism streak, or because I’ m an idiot. I did those things because I didn’ t know how to do anything else. It was only in a swimming pool I understood things like “ winning.” And even there, I didn’ t always want it or choose it. I was just happy to be away from home, in water, and among

Also, what you are taking about triggers itchy things in me – like the market. Captialism. The book as product. Mega sales as meaning. I’ ve lived a life of making art in counter-culture ways, ways that question those values – the values of the market, capitalism. I’ve made art and tried to help other people make art by collaborating with them or publishing work that challenges the mainstream conventions, forms, themes.

So if what you are really asking me is something like, what if you sell like a gazillion copies of your book, which to be honest with you is so out of my experience and reality I almost can’ t figure it, I guess I’ d have to make up an answer. A fiction. So here goes. If Hawthorne Books sells a gazillion copies of my book, and a gazillion people read it and suddenly have to learn how to prounounce “ Yuknavitch,” first I’ d have a party where people I love could dance and sing and get loopy to celebrate and share the deal with me. Then I’ d immediately try to figure out how to jam my foot in the door of whatever luck opened up for me so everyone I know could get in – particularly weird people. Then
I’ d consider it my vital duty to publish (through chiasmus press) as many cool weird people as I could and redouble my art activism efforts—counter the mainstream, counter-consumer culture.

Now more than ever. Because I don’ t know if you have noticed, but there is rampant moronic douchery abounding these days and it sickens me. A world impoverished by brain dead zombies who do not value art is a world in need of an art army to set it back not straight, but alive. So I guess I’ d be among those forming the Peoples Republic of Artland.

Andy’ s always telling me to be careful with being self effacing. I’ m not trying to be self effacing, but my “self” gets easily “ erased” when I think about a giant audience of consumers…if they suddenly appeared, I’ d say “ Hi, thank you for buying me. Want a sandwich? Let’ s take all these books and leave them in public urinals!”


Sort of.

DK:  The last thing I want to ask you about is Chiasmus Press.  You and your husband, Andy Mingo are the founders and editors, and I managed to dig up something that you wrote about your impression of the current state of publishing, a short essay entitled Psalm, where you said, among many other things, “ It’ s leaving unsaid, unwritten and unseen the story of humanity and ordinary corporeal experience in favor of the story of the privileged; it’ s entertainment value. It’ s wholesale price. It’ s distribution.”  As a young writer living in America, I can tell you that such a statement is not only elevating, but also rare these days. So, my question then is how, where and why did Chiasmus come about, and how closely are the values of Chiasmus Press and Hawthorne Books?

LY:  Chiasmus Press came about because Andy and I were sitting around one night drinking scotch in our house in the Bull Run Wilderness.  Miles was in his first year of life.  We had just moved from San Diego, where I’d been fired for getting it on with Andy ( my grad student), to Oregon, where I had a new job teaching.  We were shooting the shit about how sick and tired we both were of what we called “Northwest Salmon Poetics.”  What we meant was, so much of the writing in the Northwest is characterized by old growth and nature poems and positive energy environmentalism. 

Since both of us were more turned on by Oregon writers like Kesey than, say, the Staffords, we were lamenting the fact that the Northwest is known for nicey nice writing.

Too, my background has always been in experimental fiction writing.  Up until now, my books of short stories have been published exclusively by Fiction Collective Two, the longest running independent experimental press collaborative in the country.  I am currently an editorial board member there.

But back to that drunkard night--the more scotch we drank, the more we thought well god damn it, why don’t we do something about that?  Our idea for an independent press was born that night in the amber swill and flesh heat of rambunctious discussion in the woods. 

The word “Chiasmus” was my idea.  Shocker, huh.  The word “chiasmus” basically means a criss-cross structure, in both rhetoric and physics.  Here’s a hand example from one of my favorite books:

A "Make the heart of this people fat,
B and make their ears heavy,
C  and shut their eyes;
C1 lest they see with their eyes,
B1 and hear with their ears,

A1 and understand with their heart, and convert [return], and be healed."
(Bible: Isaiah 6:10)

Cool, isn’t it.  But what we wanted to play with in terms of the name of the press was a “counter culture” idea—taking what culture is and inverting it.  Thus our catch-phrase:  correcting culture.

So the books we first published started with a series called Northwest Edge.  We printed three in a row in the series:  Deviant Fictions, The End of Reality, and Fictions of Mass Destruction, featuring Northwest authors who definitely did not write about salmon or old growth.

Then we began to publish single authors whose work was radically experimental.  Most recently, Lance Olsen’s astonishing palimpsest Head in Flames, Kate Zambreno’s psychosexual manifesto O Fallen Angel, Lily Hoang’s puzzletropic Parabola,  and a re-release of possibly the most important multi-media text written, Steve Tomasula’s Vas Cyborg Edition.

We also began to sponsor an experimental novel contest—winners have included Collette Phair and Kate Zambreno and Lily Hoang. Another of our slogans is books requiring a brain. Chiasmus is on hiatus just now while I work on my own book release, but watch for our asses this fall; we will be undergoing a big shift in presentation, and we have a surprise up our…sleeve.

In many ways Chiasmus and Hawthorne share structural similarities as small presses surviving in Oregon.  I think the chief difference is in content and distribution.  The content of Chiasmus books highlights experiments in fictional form and counter culture authors.  And the distribution of Chiasmus books is much smaller than Hawthornes.  Probably the other big difference is in terms of labor – it’s just me and the Mingo and individuals we sporadically trick into collaborating with us for great dinners in our back yard, booze, and hot tub dips.

I am OTHERWORLDLY thrilled that Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books has taken a chance on a writer like me with both The Chronology of Water, and experimental memoir, and The Small Backs of Children, a less than conventional novel.  It seems some of my writing can bridge the gap between literary and experimental, and for her faith in that venture, I often get down on my knees and pray to her.
***The title of this article appears courtesy of Kathryn L. Mills

Reviews of Upcoming Indie Titles:

A novel,
Charles Nauman
Plain View Press

       Filmmaker, poet and novelist Charles Nauman’s latest work, Pola, The
Mysterious Communications of a Gone Woman (available now from Plain
View Press) is a psychologically driven journey into the “sacred
unity” of art, mind and nature.  The narrative follows a “gone woman”
named Pola who, in Nauman’s words, has drifted into a nether-land of
mystery and discovery.  “Her wounds of schizophrenic madness are met
with the equally wounded voices of her equally wounded lover, a
soldier boy she sees murdered as he flees into the forest.”
       While Nauman is no doubt covering familiar ground by delving into the
mental and spiritual wounds of human madness, the fresh, distinctive
voice he brings to the genre is remarkable.  Nauman’s prose is a
flagrant and vividly poetic compliment to a purposely nomadic
narrative that moves between its characters divided introspection, and
fanatical exploits.
       Overall, Pola is a success, in that Nauman has accomplished precisely
what he set out to accomplish with this novel.  His blend of poetry
and introspection does indeed force its reader to consider
consciousness beyond its typical potential.  That said, Pola is not
merely the story of a disturbed woman, rather it is the story of a
broken society that has, in all its wisdom, failed to break the
surface of human suffering.  Nauman’s Pola, in this regard, is one of
the very few of its kind—it is a carefully constructed, intensely
lyrical translation of a harrowing and unconventional look at love,
loss and the ensuing madness.  Nauman’s expedition into psychology,
mythology and the human condition is fascinating, sensitive and, above
all, engaging.

                                                     --Indie Literature Now

The Seeker Is The Sought
Marvin Richard Montney
Outskirts Press, $15.95

            Marvin Richard Montney is a prize-winning American poet, novelist and playwright.  The Seeker Is The Sought, a collection of his poetry spanning some forty years,  symbolizes the culmination of Montney’s range and aptitude as a poet.  Separated into three “clusters,” Montney’s poems carry the reader through a lyrical maze of love, joy and empowerment.  “Poetry, Montney claims, gives insight into the reflexive processes and structures known to lovers alone.”
            What sets The Seeker Is The Sought apart from other collections of poetry is Montney’s ambitious direction.  With each “cluster,” comes a carefully calculated objective.  With deft rhythm and a both vivid and powerful capability to bring image to language, Montney’s poems evoke an almost unnatural curiosity. 
            Each poem in this collection suggests a powerfully intimacy capable of reaching a diverse range of readers.  In the end, Montney’s intriguing and ambitious insights into the psyche of love are a success in that they stir enough emotion in their reader to be deemed worth reading and rereading.  

                                                                                 --Indie Literature Now


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