A Dislocated Sense of Place

J.T. Ellison

Home is where the heart is, right?

I’ve been thinking about what "home" means to me lately. The past few weeks on Facebook, I’ve had a run of luck reconnecting with some of my friends from high school and college, which has in turn overloaded my senses with a bevy of long-forgotten memories when the names and faces pop up. We’re all twenty years older, but that’s just few enough years that you can still readily recognize people.

You see, I don’t live where I went to school. I moved away from both my childhood home and my high school and college home. Which means that here in Nashville, there’s no one around from my childhood.

And in many ways, that’s a good thing. It’s funny, I thought I had changed dramatically, that I was this completely different person from the one I was back then. One quick inbox from a respected friend from high school shattered that illusion. I am the same person — a little smarter, a little more worldly, definitely a lot more in tune with my heart — but I’m still the geeky girl who didn’t feel like she fit in. Not all the way. The one who listened to the fears and hopes of people from every clique, and never got into any of them. Still the same woman who encouraged her friends, believed in them, knew they could be whatever they wanted to be, yet never, ever discovered exactly what she wanted. Who never got completely comfortable in her skin.

I mentioned this to hubby the other night. We were eating in a fine Nashville establishment called Rhumba, and I was watching a woman out the window. She was sitting at an outside table, smoking, tattoos parading up her left arm, her hair died auburn and cut in a nifty bob, her white tank top skimming her muscled and tanned back as she rested her tattooed arm on the seat next to her. I saw a glint of metal near her mouth, a lip ring, most likely. Hubby said, "That’s a lot of ink." And I spilled out with,"Yes, but she knows exactly who she is and is completely aware of herself. I respect the hell out of that. I wish I did. I’ll be forty next year, and I’m still not there."

I’ve met women like the one I was admiring along the way: the self-assured, the glamorous, the perfect ones, the quirky. Their lives seem effortless. Their hair is always perfect, or perfectly rocked out, they never pay for a drink, they have fascinating stories. I watch and wonder how they do that. When did they hit the moment when they said "This is ME. This is my identity. This is who I was meant to be. Screw what other people think."

I’ve always been fascinated with the counter culture mystique, felt more of an affinity with them that the Junior League crowd I used to was run with. The goths, the wiccans, the punk rockers, the role-players. I can’t help myself, I admire them. I love that they live off the grid, in worlds of their own making. That’s probably the important part of that — worlds of their own making. These women choose to pierce, or tattoo, or paint their face white. It’s a statement about who they are.

Yes, I’ve flirted with the edges — have a couple of tattoos and a piercing or two, thought I was damn cool. But I never had the guts to make it happen for real. I never fully embraced the alternative lifestyle. I couldn’t dress right, I didn’t have the guts to have people stare at me. The feelings of coolness fluttered away and left me feeling like a poseur. Honestly, I can’t even loosen up enough to dress up for Halloween, how could I do that on a daily basis?

I never fully embraced ANY lifestyle, really, outside of the desire to be the best wife I could be. I was quite the little Suzy homemaker for a while there, once I learned how to boil water. I took to marriage like a duck to water, feeding and growing on love. That, at least, hasn’t changed.

But in the little ways that count, I have changed. I may not be an anti-establishment alternative lifestyle girl, wearing my Dr. Martens with a short skirt and ripped leggings, but I do know my own mind. I am probably too opinionated now. Show me your problem and I can find sixteen equally amenable solutions for you. Become my friend, worm your way past my defenses and into my heart, and I’ll be there for you for the rest of your life.

So what does any of this have to do with writing?

My mom asks me all the time why I don’t write a political thriller. And
while I’ll admit to having a corker of an idea for one, I’m reluctant
to set a book in D.C. Check that. I’ve been hyper-resistant to even considering the idea. I’ve never been able to put my finger on the reason why. The journey back through time on Facebook brought it all to the forefront.

There’s too much of ME there. Firsts, lasts, good and bad. Joys, regrets. I lived in D.C. for 15 years, most of them formative. All my big "First
Times": Friendships, boyfriends, jobs. I’ve never been one to dwell on
my past, instead prefer to look forward. I guess I feel like setting a
book in D.C. would be akin to revisiting a ghost of myself. It’s not me
any more. And instead of writing the story, I’d be mourning the loss of the girl who did wear the combat boots and ripped leggings, who wanted to dye a pink streak in her hair, who somehow ended up working in the White House, wore blue suits with white hose, carried a Coach briefcase and was a categorical bow-head. Yikes.

Nashville was a much easier set up for me. There is no history for me here, no background. No people who knew me,
who’d seen my mistakes, watched me grow up. I guess, in a way, I had
nothing to lose. I could recreate myself through my setting. Since I was new to the area, I experienced it through fresh eyes. I’m still discovering parts of my adopted hometown that surprise me.


"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had
really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel
that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the
good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and
the places and how the weather was."*

That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my books.

I think if you can tap into that, your books will be a success. If you can make a reader FEEL your setting, to experience it as fully as they would watching it on the screen, you’ve succeeded. Do you have to know yourself to be a good writer? Of course not. I’ve come to believe that life is a journey, made up of bits and pieces of experiences that shape us into who we become, yet never stop us from evolving into what we can be. But you must give your reader the proper setting for the story. To build a world for them.

Will I ever go home, write a book where my invisible footprints still linger? I don’t know. Writing has become that journey for me, my very own road to discovery. But I will continue to strive to realize the settings I do pick, to make sure that I give them every ounce of me that I have to give. This is what I’ve been realizing over the past few months.
There’s really no way to go home again. But would you want to?

What I finally figured out is that home is truly where
the heart is. It’s not a place, it’s a state of mind.

Where do you call home? Do you write about your hometown? Readers, do you prefer books set in places you know well or don’t know at all?

Wine of the Week: 2003 Campe della Spinette Barolo

*Ernest Hemingway, "Old Newsman Writes," Esquire, December 1934, pg. 26 (courtesy of my good friend Peggy Peden)


On a lighter note, huge, MEGA-congratulations to Last Comic Standing Iliza Shlesinger!!!! Way to go, girl!!!!  Thanks for all the laughs.

29 thoughts on “A Dislocated Sense of Place

  1. Toni

    I started out writing a novel set in a city that’s utterly unfamiliar to me, but ended up setting it in a city from my past (Chicago) because images, stories, and people I remember from my decade there kept popping into my head. My lead character is also heavy on the wild child side, probably for cathartic reasons similar to yours–I never quite could walk that walk, but man is it fun to watch someone else doing so!

    Finally, I’m just now, at 40, beginning to “get” what it means to feel comfortable in my own skin. It became a matter of “how many more years of discomfort do I want to endure?”

  2. Catherine

    JT,This has been such a theme for friends this past week. We’ve been talking about taking stock about how well we know ourselves. Just how much of who we show to the world is really who we are…even that weird disconnect of someone from your past talking to you, [now] as though you’re still the person they knew.

    Being a baby bride and marrying my childhood sweetheart meant for me that I did all the things I thought I ‘should’ be doing for a lot of years.No regrets with the path taken, all just a learning curve. It wasn’t until I turned forty that I realised the breadth of what I wanted, and only recently that I learnt what I NEED,(to feed my power) to achieve what I desire.

    I’ve lived my whole life within the same 100km. I’ve travelled overseas a few times…but lately I’ve been chafing to move beyond a place where people think they know all of me just because of sustained proximity and a polite smile.

    As a reader I often like reading about other places as it gives me a view to another way of living beyond my own patch of dirt. This view includes the buildings, the pace of a place, the speech patterns, the people, the shared understanding of a place, the things that set people apart and even excludes them.

    I found the couple of times I’ve visited the United States it has felt quite surreal, as it feels so familar through the written word, and through film. It’s like walking through a stage set, with no script, and an unseen director. It’s also pretty cool as the majority of people can only take me as I am in any given moment…there are no preconceptions nibbling at me. Freeing.

    Maybe this is something like your experience in Nashville JT?

    I also enjoy reading some local author’s descriptions of South East Queensland. While corrupt politicans and varied police performance seems a fairly universal theme, there is a special enjoyment in recognising our own particular brand.The same goes for seeing a place you know of expressed through someone elses words and perhaps shaded with literary depravity. This gives me a different type of jolt than when I read of places far away. The action and story are not so removed. When I read local authors especially I find it easier to wonder just what might be going on under the surface in my own town.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Funny, I’ve always thought that mega tattoos and piercings were a sign of the herd mentality. I’d be willing to bet big money that MOST people who follow those trends would say privately – if they’re being honest – that they feel just as conformist as you’re expressing, JT.

    I did the ripped leggings and short skirts – but that was the style – it had nothing to do with nonconformity.

    I also suspect that that feeling of disconnect, of never really fitting in to a group, is part of the writer’s character. We have to be chameleons and outsiders and observers because it’s essential for us to understand everything about everyone else. An author with too strong a sense of self might not be able to slip so easily into someone else’s skin. I love that aspect of writing, even if I sometimes feel like just a shell or a sponge with no character of my own.

    I have only written about California in two short stories so far (although I’ve used it as a setting in a lot of scripts). I haven’t set something in Berkeley since my first script. I think I will eventually, but the idea is sort of overwhelming. Maybe I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.

  4. Kaye Barley

    JT – I absolutely love this piece. Love it. And there are many things I’d like to respond to, on many levels, but I’d be sitting here writing for days, ultimately getting into areas that I fight to keep “my own,” then deleting the whole dang shebang. You, sweetie, have touched many areas many women spend many hours pondering. and you have done it in your very own inimitable, beautiful style.

    I’m the latest blooming woman I know, but damn it feels good when you reach that astonishingly incredible time in your life when you find yourself holding your head a bit higher, thrusting those shoulders back a smidge and walking with the swing and swagger (even if its only in your mind) you always wished you had the guts to strut when you were younger.

    O.K. what was your question? Do we readers prefer books set in places we know well or don’t know at all? For me? Both! Tell me a good story set in the south, and if you get it right, I’m yours forever. I’m a sucker for southern. But I’m also fascinated and curious about other places, lifestyles and cultures, so again – tell me a story about a place I don’t know and get it right, well – I’m all yours. To me, if the story is character driven and written so well that the “place” becomes a “character,” I’m hooked.

  5. billie

    Great post, JT, and a fine way to end the week.

    I’m especially intrigued by your thoughts on the alternative lifestyle and the young woman with all the ink knowing exactly who she is.

    My take on that (not having the nuance of physical presence, which admittedly might make a huge difference) is that often those younger people who fling themselves full tilt into the extremes don’t so much know themselves as need to fill themselves in with something so they feel whole.

    Been there and done that with the extreme clothing and bizarre hair colors. 🙂 Oddly, once that became common, I made an abrupt change to expensive designer clothing for a few years. I needed an identity but I desperately wanted to be *different.*

    Fast forward to my 20th high school reunion, which resulted in a week-long crisis of buying new clothes and ended an hour before time to go to the first event of the weekend when I accidentally waxed one entire eyebrow off! My husband was baffled at my horror, and it was only later in the weekend when someone said “you always were a clotheshorse” that I finally connected my earlier years to my college years. In my memory I had been invisible all those years in the small town.

    Which brings me to the small town book. Yes, I have one in my head. My mom keeps telling me that’s the break-out book. But I’m too afraid to write it. I figure that one is still brewing and some mid-life stage or other will shake it loose when it’s ready.

  6. John Dishon

    I live in Bowling Green, Kentucky, just an hour away from Nashville. I don’t like to write about any place I’ve called home. The way I see it, I’ve lived at the place for so long, there’s nothing here that interests me. I’d rather write about somewhere I don’t know as well, so I ca learn more about the place.

  7. ArkansasCyndi

    here’s an inside tip…Sometimes the ones who look the “most together” are pulling the biggest scam of all. They’re so scared of not knowing who they are, they pull in tight, looking confident.

    Story setting? I love any place I’ve been… and those I haven’t! Unless the setting is a story character, I might not even notice where the story is set.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Having set various books in different locations, it’s amazing how often, after a talk, people come up and look at the book covers and ask, “Which was the one you mentioned that’s set in X?”

    I don’t care where a book is set, fictional or real, if I feel the author has got across the flavour of the location without writing me a travel guide.

    And you really nailed with the whole reunion thing. I was last in full-time education when I was twelve. I think most of the people I was at school with then probably think I died.

  9. Rae

    As Alex says, sometimes what appears to be non-conformity (or an attempt at it) is just fashion. And I agree with Ark.Cyndi – sometimes the people who appear the most pulled together are the most scared. I had a boss once – think Miranda Priestly, right down to the hair and the vocabulary – who would only drink Veuve, and only drive a certain model of Mercedes. It was all about her insecurity – she didn’t trust her own taste enough to make choices for herself.

    As far as the sense of place in fiction, I like reading about places I know well, and I like ‘visiting’ places I’ve never been. I just want verisimilitude. And I love it when the sense of place in a book is so strong that the location becomes a character. I’m thinking of Lawrence Block’s New York and Robert Crais’s LA. You really feel like you’ve been there after you’ve read one of their books.

  10. JDRhoades

    I set my books in North Carolina, in part, to sort out my own love-hate relationship with the place and its contradictions. Remember, this is a state that elected both Jesse Helms and John Edwards to the Senate. We’ve got three major universities and a major center of research and technology a few miles away from communities where people are living in trailers without indoor plumbing. In my own county, we have the great wealth and opulence of the golf mecca of Pinehurst, and thousands living in poverty a mile outside the town limits.

    I like books that remind me of home, but I don’t see too many of those, which is another reason I write them. I also, however, like books that take me away to different places and especially different times.

    As for old friends: I see my best friends from high school a lot, even though most of them have moved away. A lot of my other running buddies from those days, I see as criminal defendants. There but for the grace, etc.

  11. Pari Noskin Taichert

    JT,What a beautiful post.

    Home is where the heart is and I was lucky enough to be born home.

    I write about New Mexico — not so much Albuquerque, but the entire state — and I do it because I adore this place. Most people don’t know about NM so it has an exotic edge but there’s a downside to my decision because when you write the truth of a place — the fact that it’s more diverse than people’s stereotypes doesn’t always please them.

    In my new series, location isn’t as critical, but each book will be set somewhere that I’ll have to learn about. It’ll be fun to stretch my ability to capture the essence of a town/city when I don’t know it already in my heart.

  12. Louise Ure

    JT, I’d encourage you to write the DC book. I’ve found a particular joy in writing about a place that was important to me — where all my firsts took place. But I’m only able to do it now, when I can hold it at arm’s length or see it in a review mirror. I guess I have to miss something before I know I loved it.

    And those cool kids with their tats and piercings or their perfect hair and secret handshakes? They’re just as unsettled and self-questioning as the rest of us.

  13. JT Ellison

    Toni, I’m finally finding that place as well. It’s a sudden discovery, one day realizing you’ve hit the point.

    Catherine, that sense of dislocation still exists here for me. I’ve been reluctant to get too involved because I’m better at observing that participating.

    Alex said: An author with too strong a sense of self might not be able to slip so easily into someone else’s skin.

    Which is funny, because Alex, you’re one of those women I look at who is completely self-assured, knows who she is, and makes me wish I could find that within myself. I’ve been learning from you, sweetie. I love the idea that we have to be on the outside looking in. That made more sense to me than any other introspection.

  14. JT Ellison

    Kaye, thank you. I’m just hitting that point, I think, where I can’t dress like an 18 year old anymore, and that’s part of my little identity crisis. My mind wants one thing, my body laughs hysterically. I’m in-between, and that’s nerve wracking.

    And again, WHY do I care?

    Billie, I like your observation that the inked set are looking for something to make them complete, to fill them so they’re whole. And I will admit, if I waxed off an eyebrow, I would lock myself away until it grew back.

    John, I LOVED Bowling Green when I visited in April. It was so different than Nashville — so verdantly green, the mahogany colored-fences and rolling hills fairly screamed horse country to me. I can’t wait to come back. Funny how new eyes see differences.

    Cyndi, you’re right. I think I know intrinsically that they are poseurs just as much as I am, but it doesn’t stop the fascination.

  15. Bill Cameron

    I’ve now lived in my current home longer than any place else in my entire life. I’d had 17 bedrooms by the time I graduated high school, and only two of those were in the same house. (No, not an Army brat, though that did influence the first few moves.) Home has always had to be where I am right now, and given how much change I’ve experienced, how unsettled I’ve always been, I probably will never escape the feeling of, “Yeah, but what’s next?” As it stands, I’m currently writing about Portland, which means I’m writing about as much of a home as I’ve ever had. But ultimately, any time I’m writing, the subtext will always be an unrooted sense of displacement.

    As for that sense of certainty in who I am, that confidence you talk about, well, I’m not sure I ever want that. Once I become secure in who I am, then what? Not sure I want to go there quite yet. Or ever.

  16. JT Ellison

    Z – I missed my 20th, and I hated to do it, because I was so curious about where everyone else was. I bet all your schoolmates are wishing they could be back in touch with you!!!

    Rae, your boss not trusting her own taste — I’ve had those people around me too. They are the keep up with the Joneses, and that’s a whole different post. Drives me nuts. I’d rather made a bad choice than be afraid to make any at all. And I look for verisimilitude in my settings as well. Your examples are perfect.

    Tom — THANK YOU for that link! Everyone needs to read the post. I’ve never read Bradbury, but I have always been a fan of Dylan Thomas. I’m going to follow up on that thoroughly. A great, great link. The self-revelation is the beast for me. I’m not very good at laying myself bare.

  17. JT Ellison

    Dusty, the dichotomy of Nashville is another reason I chose to set the books here. The class structure here is insane. I think you do an amazing job writing about NC. It is a crazy state.

    Pari — same goes for you. You make New Mexico come alive, and show us all the little nuances we don’t know about. It’s brilliant.

    Louise, this whole post has me considering it. I need to wrap my head around the idea, then spend two weeks in D.C., see if I can recapture the mythos I’m searching for. I don’t know if it will work the way I want it to.

    Bill, you’re background is fascinating, and I know you mine bits and pieces of it. I love that you don’t want that sense of place that would come with being settled in who you are. It’s what gives your writing such a sharp edge.

    I have realized that no matter where I am, home is with Randy. As long as he’s there, all things are possible and safe.

  18. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ellison, I loved this post.

    Fact is, I spent 3 or 4 years designing that tattoo that defined me. Then I graduated from college, and it needed to be changed. Graduated in 1997, still don’t have the tat (and now that I’m married, my wife has assured me that I never will while she’s still here). I was the metal head in HS, the jock in college, and at this point I’m not really sure what I am, because the truth for me is much the way Ms. Sokoloff described all of us. A chameleon.

    As writers, I think we are always on the outside, observing and taking notes to come up with a wonderful reality later. We never really “fit” in one clique so much as flutter between all of them. Friend to many, BFF to none I suppose.

    As far as settings of what I read/write, I have only lived for any length of time in NC, and I know there are so few mystery writers who write about this place, so I try to bring it to life for those readers who’ve never been here.

    As far as reading, I love it all. You don’t have to give me a damn thing about setting if the characters and story are what’s important, and I’ll still follow along. But when you can make it come alive (Eisler’s Japan, Deaver’s New York, Crais & Connelly’s LA), then I want so desperately to go there in person. It all works.

  19. R.J. Mangahas

    Nice post JT.

    I try to use places I know when I write (not so much in short stories) because I really love making the location just as much a character as anybody else. Doing it successfully is another story. 🙂

  20. JT Ellison

    Tasha, I felt like we all needed a reminder of who we used to be this week. xoxoxoxoxoxox

    Jake, I like this whole mystique of us writers as outsiders. It’s helped me immeasurably to see how many of us feel the same way.

    RJ, I have done short stories in other cities, especially ones I haven’t been to. It’s strange, they are easier than Nashville sometimes. I guess I worry about getting it right more.

    And that said — I just typed THE END on the first draft of Edge of Black — #4 in the Taylor series. Thank you all for putting up with me while I whined my way through it!!!

  21. JanW

    JT, lots of meat in that post! Where to begin?

    I went to my one and only reunion – 30th. I hadn’t seen most of those people in all that time, hadn’t set foot in the town for 20 years, and I lived on the other side of the planet, as I still do. The one thing that seemed constant, despite hair and body changes, was their laughter. The person could have had a full body replacement, but if I had known them reasonably well, their voice was the one thing that hadn’t changed. Of course there were a few who hadn’t changed in the face or body either, but that was rare.

    My first book was set in an area nearby my home town because I wanted to draw upon the character types of that era when we were teenagers. No one in the story is an actual person, but are amalgamations of bits and pieces of impressions, and the sorts of people who could have been there. Hopefully that made it more real. The couple high school friends who have read it liked it. What I was after was the ‘write what you know’ idea.

    As for setting preferences as a reader, I’d say both. Since I’m relatively new to where I live now [Melbourne Australia], stories set in this state are interesting because they are related to the people and place in general, so are still a bit exotic, but somehow familiar as well. They fill in the blank spaces in my head that I take for granted about places in the US because I lived the first half of my life there. Some stories are placeless, could take place anywhere. Others are tied strongly to place and place determines much about the characters, sort of like my smalltowm Midwest first book. If the place choice works, doesn’t matter if I know it or not, but it does have to work and make sense at some level.

  22. Tom Barclay

    Dear ghod, JT, how can you have missed Ray Bradbury?? With Hammet and Chandler, he forced the know-it-alls to admit it’s the writing that matters, not the genre.

    You’re in for some real joy. Try to find a bottle of real dandelion wine, too, for your visit to The October Country.

  23. J. T. Ellison

    Tom, this may sound crazy, but I’ve never read Chandler or Hammet either. I wanted to make sure I was completely secure in my voice BEFORE I read the greats. I think I’m finally at that point. Is that crazy? I am so looking forward to reading it.

    Jan, excellent point. As I’m watching the opening of the Olympics in a foreign land, our differences and similarities are so apparent. It’s our job as writers to explore that through character and setting.

  24. Fran

    Read Sarah Katherine Lewis’ “Sex and Bacon” for a look at someone who has learned to be comfortable in her skin. She’s a former sex worker (and dedicated foodie!) who has a great take on life, relationships and all that jazz.

    And then write where you feel comfortable right up until the time it becomes boring or trite. Then it’s time to do something new.

  25. Catherine

    In regards to Alex and Jake commenting on chameleon aspects of themselves…

    I think part of knowing myself is an acceptance of my chameleon like aspects.I’m pretty sure that there are entire unspoken behaviours that occur due to shared DNA. As someone that is adopted and as a child quite shy, I think I adopted chamelon characteristics as a defense. Now as an adult I fully embrace, the adaptability…quite frankly it’s fun.

    I do hold true to a steady core of values built up over time though and do try to not sweat the outward details over much.If one day I want to wear all black and a bright red trench coat…this is showing just one aspect of me.The next day I’m just as likely to be wearing sweats and still have pool water in my hair.I’m not sure if I’ve been overly influenced by my teenage musical comedies stint…but there is an element that each day is just another dress up day. I guess I want to keep that irreverence and playfulness…not take it all so seriously.

    This sometimes becomes an issue for people that really take outside trappings seriously though. As long as they respect my right for difference, I’m ok with their right to feel threatened.

    Also JT, big congrats on typing ‘the end’…I hope you did whatever version of a happy dance is meaningful to you.

  26. JT Ellison

    Fran, I met a dominatrix earlier this year. She was absolutely fascinating, completely at ease with herself, made me blush, which is hard to do. And I wondered, after she left, why she was who she was. I’ll check out the book.

    Cath, reinventing daily is awesome!!! I use conferences for that — otherwise, hubby would never see me outside of my gym clothes. : )

    And thanks for the congrats — I drank a nice glass of wine and started editing while watching the Olympics opening ceremony. Not a bad night…

  27. Jake Nantz

    Catherine, I agree with the acceptance you’re talking about. For me, it’s probably as much my manic-depressive nature as anything, because my mood often determines who I “am” that day. There are days that Green Day’s “Minority” is running through my head and I honestly want to show everyone my two pet birds perched atop my hands…whether they deserve it or not. Other days I am as Elton John/Billy Joel as you please, and quite mellow. People who know me and can’t tell “who I am” based on what I’m wearing on a particular day can just as easily tell by turning on my radio to see what station it’s on. If I’m patiently absorbing/accepting my wife’s country music, it’s one thing. If AC/DC and Metallica are playing, it’s another, and if it’s the local sportsradio show it’s again something different. But like you, I’m okay with that. I guess I’ve kind of become empowered with being all of those people, and whoever the f*** else I want to be on any given day (yeah, guess what music I was listening to recently…grin).

    Vive le writers, long live the chameleons!!


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