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An Interview with Monica Ali

[NOVELIST]
“THE PARADOX IS YOU DRAW ON YOURSELF TO CREATE SOMEONE WHO IS DIFFERENT FROM YOU.”
How to write an unfamiliar character:
Lose yourself
Smell their shoe leather
Dig into your own foulness
by Sylvia Brownrigg
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Monica Ali

[NOVELIST]
“THE PARADOX IS YOU DRAW ON YOURSELF TO CREATE SOMEONE WHO IS DIFFERENT FROM YOU.”
How to write an unfamiliar character:
Lose yourself
Smell their shoe leather
Dig into your own foulness
by Sylvia Brownrigg
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Monica Ali

Sylvia Brownrigg
20 Snaps

When Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane was published in 2003 to rapturous acclaim, commercial success, and many prize short-listings, it was possible for an ex-Londoner living in Berkeley to think the book sounded interesting, certainly, but also as though it was the right book at the right time. Here was a novel that, in its account of a Bangladeshi woman plucked from her village for an arranged marriage with an older man living in London’s East End, explored issues both timeless and timely: immigrants’ dislocation, the clashing of modern and traditional cultures and of secular and religious communities, and in particular the appeal of radical Islamist rhetoric for disaffected young Muslims living in an economically blighted part of the city.

When I read the novel itself, I (the ex-Londoner) was astonished by what an all-encompassing, imagination-absorbing, don’t-bother-me-I’m-reading experience it was. Falling into the fictional world Ali created in its pages was the best kind of falling: the textures of the places she described and the voices of the people she populated them with were vivid, human, true. The moment I was actually reading I ceased to think of Brick Lane as a novel that was making any sort of point about London, or Islamicism, or Muslim traditions, or Western society; I was simply reading a story of a group of characters who were by turns comical, pathetic, canny, rebellious, self-deluding, well-intentioned, angry, affectionate, resigned. There were, it seemed to me, touches of Naipaul’s Biswas in the portrait of Chanu, the paunchy, self-important husband, and various critics likened Ali to Jane Austen in her ability to create a social world out of whole cloth. But the creation of Nazneen, whose sensibility shapes the novel, is Ali’s particular triumph. Ali draws a brilliantly subtle, empathetic portrait of a woman who sometimes knows more than she has room to know in her contained life, and who ventures beyond the constraints placed on her to become the complicated, admirable woman she is by the novel’s end.

When I spoke with Monica Ali in London last autumn, it was toward the end of her tour for her second novel, Alentejo Blue. If Ali was under any pressure to replicate or produce a sequel to Brick Lane in her second book, this is nowhere evident; Alentejo Blue is different in most notable respects from Ali’s debut. The novel, which comes out in paperback next month, is set in the Alentejo region of Portugal (where Ali and her husband and children spend several months a year, most school holidays and summers), and is made up of stories of various characters who live in a small village there: the misanthropic English writer Stanton, trying to work on his Big Book; the outsize barman Vasco, polishing glasses, collecting gossip, trying not to eat too much cake; the young romantic, Teresa, who is hoping that by moving to London to become an au pair her life will take a dramatic turn for the better; and various other exiles, travelers, and natives, who are trying in their ways to keep themselves whole.

Ali and I met up recently in a wine and tapas bar in Herne Hill in south London, near her home. Over a couple of hours our talk ventured widely, to Uganda, Bangladesh, the Café Gratitude in Berkeley, the possibility of thinking about one’s novel while doing a jigsaw puzzle with one’s child, Melvyn Bragg’s bibulous interview with the painter Francis Bacon, and the writing of sex scenes.

—Sylvia Brownrigg

I. TRYING TO SMELL THE SHOE LEATHER

THE BELIEVER: In Alentejo Blue I was struck by the fact that there are quite a few portraits of characters who enjoy their solitude; and I think in this book as of course in Brick Lane there are also questions of community… It made me think about the way those two issues are encapsulated by reading a novel, because you have this very private experience with it, and then when you finish it you immediately want to turn to everyone else who’s read it and say, “So what did you think of Nazneen? And what did you think of this other character?”The book creates this event for people to gather around. Do you know what I mean? That feeling you have when you emerge from the world of the book, which is very private, that you want to engage with someone else who knows the same world?

MONICA ALI: Yes.

BLVR: It seemed like the characters in Brick Lane would really have that impact on readers, of making people want to talk about them. Did you find that?

MA: Yeah, well, because it’s several years now since the book came out I’ve had a lot of time to get responses to it. I still get letters from people about how they felt about the book, or which character reminded them of which of their relatives. That still happens. I’ve had letters from teenage girls who’ve had arranged marriages, who want to tell me in detail about their experience of that, I guess because they felt the book was speaking to them in some way.

BLVR: Right.

MA: Which is very touching for me. But I also hear from people who don’t have an Asian or a Bangladeshi background… So many people in the States of course have an immigrant story: “My grandfather came from Russia, and he always said he would go back home, and he never actually made it back,” or “I’ve visited Poland with my grandfather, and these issues came up…” So a lot of people in the States have wanted to tell me how they’ve intersected with those ideas and issues.

BLVR: I felt so connected with Nazneen, I had one of these experiences in which the writer in me was completely absent; I was pure reader. And there would be moments when I’d think, This is curious. I mean, on the surface there isn’t so much to connect me with this character of a Bangladeshi Muslim woman living in a tower block in the East End… But she is such a full creation.

MA: Yeah, that thing of losing yourself in a character, it certainly describes the process of writing for me, to have that kind of submersion in someone… You know, it’s walking in someone else’s shoes for a while. Trying to smell their shoe leather: that’s the process.

BLVR: Right.

MA: I think that writing is a bit like acting in some way. Not that I can act, but internally, you have to inhabit that perspective and that frame of mind, which is a kind of a taking on of character. So I draw an analogy with acting, which sounds strange, perhaps.

BLVR: But I know what you mean. It seems to me particularly in Brick Lane, there’s such a lot of affection for the people in the book, even Chanu, or more comic characters. Did you miss them, when you ended the book?

MA: I definitely feel an affection for all the characters I have written to date. Even the ones who are monsters. I mean, in Brick Lane, Mrs. Islam is in a way a monster, just an appalling person, but when I’m writing about her, I don’t feel hostile to her; I feel an empathy for her. So… did I miss them? When I’m not writing, when I’ve taken time out to do book tours, I miss the constant engagement with a character. When I’m fixing the dinner I might have the radio on, but I’m not fully engaged by the chat on the radio, and I feel there’s something missing in life if I’m not constantly on, thinking, What would they think about this piece on the radio? If I’m not constantly in another dimension. It’s like…

BLVR: You feel like a thinner person, in a way.

MA: Yes, yes. So that’s what I think I miss, more than the individual characters.

II. THE PLAN

BLVR: Did you find Alentejo Blue a different writing process altogether? It seems like the relation among the characters is very different from Brick Lane, and obviously it’s a differently structured narrative. Were you very deliberately writing something in a different way, or was it just that you happened upon those characters and that setting?

MA: Well, we spend a lot of time in the Alentejo. It wasn’t a plan to write that book next. In fact, I had a completely different book planned.

BLVR: What happened to that book?

MA: I’m writing it now. I had been planning it, and doing research, and had it all lined up, ready to go… And then this book [Alentejo Blue] just got in the way. And I carried on for a while, thinking, No, I can’t let this get in the way. I must stick with the plan! I can write the Alentejo book afterward. But I’d sit at my desk and have all these characters in my head, and the obvious thing to do at that point is write what’s obsessing you.

BLVR: But what was the voice in you thinking you should really stick with the plan?

MA: There was no reason why, other than—I was thinking, Oh, I’m getting distracted by something I shouldn’t. So I had all these characters and ideas and—images. It was a strongly visual beginning: I had a series of pictures in my head, which is a different kind of beginning than Brick Lane. And then I started off writing it from the perspective of Stanton, the writer, and I thought that would give me an easy, or at least a conventional, narrative structure. It would be one perspective to inhabit, which is less work! [Laughing] I thought I could weave in the other stories and characters through him. Which I think was perfectly feasible.

So that’s how I started off writing it. And then I thought, more of a realization, that that was a cop-out. He wasn’t really the driving force behind the book, he wasn’t the impetus for writing it. The place was the impetus; or, to turn that around, the place was the main character. So then it was a question of: how do you give voice to a place? And I decided it would take a kind of choir of voices to do that. And then I didn’t really want to do that because… I thought that would be a lot of work! But once I accepted that that was the task, then I really enjoyed the challenge, and the freedom it gave.

Because with Brick Lane it was a very close discipline. You asked whether there was an element with this book of wanting to do something different, and I think it came in that. With Nazneen, the discipline is very rigorous, of staying there. Eventually, with Alentejo Blue, my enjoyment was in flexing some writing muscles, taking on the challenge of writing from the perspective of a child, and an old man, to see if I could get into those head spaces.

BLVR: Don’t you feel that’s a little like diving into cold water, when you set yourself that kind of challenge? My novel, The Delivery Room, has the perspective of a lot of different people, and I find that there are some people you know you can wear, and then there are some people where you think, Am I going to be able to? There are times when it’s like holding your breath and thinking, I’ve just got to get in there and see if I can get into that person who on the surface is very different from me, or a character I really don’t like that much… With The Delivery Room I had that with one character: when I first was writing him, he wasn’t very three-dimensional, because he irritated me. I had to do that getting acquainted thing—you know?

MA: Yes, right.

BLVR: Where you stop feeling some barrier between the character and you. So the character changed, and my relation to him changed, and then the writing started to flow and have an integrity which it hadn’t had before. I don’t know whether you had any of that with these people in Alentejo Blue ?

MA: I don’t buy this thing of the character being harder to write if he’s different from me. All of the characters in Brick Lane are different from me. I’m not anything like Nazneen, I’m nothing like Chanu, I’m not like Mrs. Islam—there’s a little bit of me in all of them, but fundamentally they’re nothing like me. It would also be hard to make a case that I’m any of the characters in Alentejo Blue .The paradox is you draw on yourself to create someone who is different from you. So if you’re writing a character who is foul, you need to dig in to your own foulness—to parts of you that usually lie low. Anyway, I just don’t buy the notion that you can’t write about a person who’s had a different life or a different personality: That’s the job! That’s what we do!

BLVR: No, I agree with that. But don’t you find— maybe you’ve never had this experience—but don’t you find sometimes that characters shut you out? Sometimes the characters who are easiest to inhabit are the ones who seem most improbable. Why would I be able to inhabit that character—a Serbian woman in her sixties? It makes no sense. But that person was easier than an Englishman who was in his thirties. It’s not to do with the external qualities; I just feel sometimes that there are characters who resist you a bit.

MA: Right, I was just picking up what you said about if they were different from you—that I don’t go along with. But: Are some characters harder to write? Yeah.

BLVR: In this book, for instance—the English girl, Ruby—did you find her hard?

MA: I’m sure there are characters that I spent longer brooding on; or characters that I just dispensed with, because I didn’t like them, I didn’t get into them.

BLVR: Were there a few of those? Characters who ended up on the cutting room floor?

MA: Yes, some I didn’t end up with. And the same with Brick Lane, there were characters who I thought about and then decided, I’m not going to do it. But out of the characters who are in Alentejo Blue … I thought that João, the old Portuguese guy, would be hard, but then, against the odds, he came quite easily. I think he’s the strongest character, an opinion which my Portuguese readers so far seem to share.

III. THERE AREN’T “PEOPLE LIKE THAT”!

BLVR: One of the things I was initially struck by in Alentejo Blue is that it felt angrier, or bleaker, than Brick Lane; quite a few of the characters seemed angry about something, sparring with each other in ugly ways.The Potts family in particular.

MA: Yes, the Potts family are what might be labeled dysfunctional. I was telling a friend of mine about a family who were a bit like the Pottses—there are people around there who are not dissimilar, in terms of difficulties that they have, things that they’ve left behind, or reasons why they’ve gone to the Alentejo. And my friend said, “God, how can you spend so much time with people like that!”

But nobody is “a person like that,” in the same way that if you see a brown woman in a sari, you might have an assumption that you can pretty much put her in a box. Not in my view, you can’t. Everyone has a story worth exploring. A person’s inner life is not less complex and interesting because of the accident of their birth or social position. That’s one of my basic motivations for writing.

BLVR: To find “people like that” and put the light on them?

MA: But there aren’t “people like that”! You know?

BLVR: Well, right. But—you probably wouldn’t choose, I’m guessing, to set a novel in—

MA: —stockbroker-belt Surrey?

BLVR: You know, to the extent that there are characters who are more often written about and characters who are less often written about, it does seem that your attraction is to those who haven’t had as many pages devoted to them. And I don’t know if that’s a deliberate redressing, or more just a sort of native interest. Maybe you met a family a bit like that and thought, What would it be like—?

MA: Writers write for all different sorts of reasons (though I guess we all share a love of words), and there is no onus on writers to write anything other than the truth about the world as they see it. If their interest is fairly close and narrow, and it’s about their shopping experiences, then that’s what they must write. I don’t hold some idea that all writing must be socially inquisitive. The freedom of the writer to write exactly what they want is entirely dominant for me.

Having said that, I think the gift of literature, what it gives us, as I said before, is an ability to walk in another person’s shoes. That’s what the writer does, and that’s what literature can give you when it’s really doing the best job that it can do. That is its heart, that is its moral purpose. To see the world from another point of view. That is something that would drive me to write. That is what fires me up.

BLVR: I suppose why this is a slightly tormenting question for me is that I don’t find the world I actually inhabit in Berkeley a particularly fascinating world. And so I have some tension about living in this world that I don’t feel needs to be written about, really. Do you know what I mean? I think at times writers can make a decision to go somewhere else, to go outside their life, and work that out.

MA: Yes.

BLVR: Again, if there’s some sort of integrity in the process, they’ll get into that other world, whatever it is, either because they move into it, or they research it, or whatever. It strikes me from these two books that that is something you want to do.

MA: It’s also a question of following my interests, you know; which is partly also why I was at such pains to emphasize that the writer must have complete liberty. I happen to have these interests, so it’s something that I can follow, and it happens to marry up with my idea about the purpose or moral heart of writing. But these are my interests, and they are formed by my background and my family, by being an immigrant…

BLVR: They’re bound together.

MA: Right.

BLVR: You don’t have a country home in Tuscany, or in Provence…

MA: Yes. That is also about making decisions. I could have one, a country house in Provence, but—God—I just wouldn’t go there! [Laughing]

IV. THE BEST PLACE TO LOOK IS IN FICTION.

MA: This point that you’re raising about where to go to next with your writing, and what you want to explore, I think those are very good things to raise, because there is enormous pressure now for fiction writing to be thinly veiled autobiography. Now, why should that be? I’ve noticed it with works of fiction I see coming out, the author’s acknowledgments go on for pages, trying to painfully say—

BLVR: I’m sorry. That’s my nationality.

MA: No, not yours.Yours are very short.

BLVR: But Americans. My country. We’re doing that.

MA: No, it’s not just Americans.We’re doing it here, as well. These lists of where they studied, and what they read… Often it happens where the subject is not: this is my experience of growing up. It’s when you step slightly out of the front door—and then the writer has to put down:“I’ve read five thousand books about this.” Of course you have! Every writer does. You’ve got to do research until you’re—not even up to your neck, until it’s over your head. But of course you’ve done that! It should be taken as read. It’s about proving your credentials because there is such a pressure about “authenticity.” Have you lived this life? Have you been there? Well—

BLVR: That’s the act of the imagination.

MA: Yes! Fiction is not about research. Of course you have to do your research, you’re hopeless if you don’t. But that’s not the job. I mean any fool can do that, really, particularly if you’ve had a university education. But the hard bit is imagining!

BLVR: There’s a piece I read of yours in the Observer about going to Uganda. And at the end, an African man you met on this Oxfam-sponsored trip said something which we’re not supposed to believe in anymore: That you could speak for him. Yes, you may tell my story, and please do. But there is that anxiety about whether it is OK to speak for other people. And I think that anxiety is connected to the four-page list of acknowledgments.

MA:Yes, it is. But where it shouldn’t stray is to fiction, to literature.

BLVR: One of the things you’re drawing on is something I share, which is a faith that fiction is a really important place to go when you want to understand the world. Right? I mean, that’s why I do what I do. And it works both ways. I read when I want to understand life in the East End in London; I read when I want to understand myself, or my husband, or my children. I read fiction, that’s what I do. But, not to sound defeated or depressed, but in the States there’s not as much of a collective faith anymore that fiction is where you go for those things. There’s a strong sense that nonfiction is better for that.

MA: You see, that’s completely wrong.

BLVR: I agree! I absolutely agree.There’s this idea that we have to read studies, and memoirs, and—

MA: That’s bullshit. Well, of course, read studies and memoirs but not at the expense of fiction. If you look for clues to Islamists in England, for instance, the best place to look is in fiction. Go to Hanif Kureishi’s My Son the Fanatic. He wrote that before everyone was talking about this. And it’s a much more telling, deep, thoughtful, precise analysis than anything you could have got in a nonfiction book at the time. And probably even now it will help more people to understand.

BLVR: I don’t think there’s quite the same frenzy here in the U.K. for the “real” story as told by the “real” person.

MA: But if you look at the book lists here, they’re depressing in lots of ways, aren’t they? I mean, it’s mainly celebrity ghostwritten-autobiography,all those memoirs, twenty-two-year-old footballers getting paid five million pounds for their book.“I woke up. I played football…”

V. WHITHER EAST-WEST RELATIONS?

BLVR: That cycles back around to something else about Brick Lane. Did writing that book mean you were then somebody people turned to to explain everything that’s going on?

MA: Mm-hm.

BLVR: What was that like?

MA: I just didn’t get into it at all. I didn’t engage with it.

BLVR: How did you manage that?

MA: I just didn’t do it. Over the last few years there has been the opportunity—the pressure, even—to be a talking head, a pundit. And I just never did any of that. You know, I was in Italy, I went to the Mantua Literature Festival—if you can, you should go, because it’s lovely, it’s in this beautiful, ancient walled city, and the food is fantastic—but there, the interviewer on stage was asking me those sorts of questions, you know: “So, whither EastWest relations?”—that sort of thing. And I said,“These are issues that I’m deeply interested in, but I think that the place where I can fully and meaningfully tackle them is through fiction, because fiction allows so much more than a sound bite.”

You know, I don’t have strong ideas of: it’s like this. I don’t want to push one line. I want to explore, and maybe through my exploration I can get a little bit closer to understanding.And the audience—there were about five hundred people there; they understood that. They broke into applause. I think it’s journalists who are very keen to get the one-liner from you. But actually readers don’t do that. That’s not what they’re after at all.

VI. THE VILLAGE SETTING

MA: You were saying when we started talking that the characters in Alentejo Blue seemed quite stranded, isolated, and raised questions about community as Brick Lane did too. I think you’re right that there are points of continuity between the two books… because although Nazneen in Brick Lane lives in a very tight-knit community, it’s a book about social dislocation, really, and the same with Alentejo Blue . Though this is a seemingly benign, cozy setting, a lot of characters are isolated. I think that’s a condition we live in—we live in this gaping proximity: though we’re together we’re divided in so many ways.

BLVR: We are both solitary, and in this community.

MA: Right. I think I use the village setting—because Brick Lane is really about a village, an urban village, and Alentejo Blue is also—to highlight that in particular. You can be so close that it’s almost suffocating, and yet feel a sense of loneliness.

BLVR: I was thinking of James Wood, who wrote that long, praiseful piece about Brick Lane. One of the things he said about Brick Lane that I thought was interesting was the way in which if you take a focused community, then rebellions, indiscretions, have more inherent drama because everybody knows about them. Even if it’s a character like Ruby in Alentejo Blue , who is and isn’t part of the community—people are going to be talking about her, her path is going to be easier or more difficult depending on how much people know, and how far she goes.

At one point there is an act of hers which seems to be too much, even for the village. But that seems to be another feature of having a community that tight. I suppose James’s argument about Brick Lane was that in a more diverse, dispersed, urban setting, having an affair or not wouldn’t be quite as heightened and dramatic as it is in the village that is the Estate, in Brick Lane.

MA: That’s interesting.I suppose it is possible to argue that in liberal, Western society infidelity is par for the course, and it doesn’t have that heightened quality; but actually, if you look at people’s lives, if you know someone who’s been through a divorce… In one way, yeah, marriages break down, but there is an intensity there anyway, for the two or three people involved. But in the little village that surrounds them, I don’t think it has the same drama. VI. THE WORLD IN A BOWL OF SOUP

BLVR: Another thing I can get exercised about is this question of what material is OK for fiction, where it’s OK to go in fiction. Basically my belief, of course, is that it’s OK to go anywhere. But specifically, writing about domestic tasks—I suppose this is an anxiety I have that is related to the way that men’s writing is viewed in some way as different than women’s—

MA: Men have it easier, don’t they?

BLVR: I think to some degree there’s still a way in which male writers are more assumed to be writing about the big, serious subjects. Very generally, women are more assumed to be writing about romance and domesticity. Obviously, within that there are many—

MA: It’s all crap, though, isn’t it?

BLVR: Well, right, it’s all crap. But there are certain aspects of domestic life, like cooking, for instance—I actually like to cook, and I’m interested in food, but I can’t quite resolve whether I want to put that into my stories, or whether it makes something seem immediately more trivial. And one of the things that interested me in Brick Lane is that—

MA: There’s quite a lot of cooking.

BLVR: There’s quite a lot of cooking!

MA: Somebody told me that their parents make Brick Lane dal, they follow the description of the dal in the novel.

BLVR: There’s one scene when Nazneen is throwing spices into the pan, and it’s just such a vivid scene, and when I read that I thought, How could I have ever thought that cooking isn’t a completely rich and real part of life that you can write about? And yet, there have been these American suburban stories where a mother is fretting over whether to serve enchiladas or tuna casserole, and I find myself tearing my hair out and thinking, I don’t want to know about this!

MA: You see, it’s not to do with cooking per se, is it?

BLVR: There’s some banality that can emerge in domestic descriptions when you can feel, It’s enough that I have to do that, I don’t want to read about it. And then there are other descriptions in which you think, That’s who she is, of course, that’s part of her… I can’t sort out the difference.

MA: Well, I don’t feel that I have to shy away from a domestic scene, because it’s part of life, how can we say we should steer away from that, as writers? I would think of Jane Austen, whose settings, her milieu, her horizons, are in some ways incredibly narrow. Incredibly narrow. But, you know, she can show us the world in a bowl of soup: that’s her skill, that’s her gift. Because her concern, although she’s describing the setting of the table or whatever, is to do with how people relate to it, whether they have a neurosis about their social standing, and whether someone slightly superior is coming along to make them feel defensive, or nervous, or proud—she’s reflecting her characters and their social relationships, and the way that reflects the wider world of hierarchies, and wealth, and poverty, the relationships between men and women… All these things she does through the domestic setting.

BLVR: So I suppose really it just comes down to the strength of the writer. In skillful hands, any detail is expressive of the list you just gave, of the character, the setting, the class setting.

MA: The description and detail can be absolutely riveting, and wonderful in their own right—say, a description of the fire in the grate. It’s the authority of the writing. But if it doesn’t go anywhere, doesn’t make you feel the life of that person—what’s the point of it?

BLVR: But sometimes you can read exhaustive descriptions of a meal or an interior and you think—

MA: Well, there is a bloody list mania. There’s a whole shopping-list style going on in many contemporary novels. Where people are showing off—or rather it’s a kind of anxiety—about research done.

BLVR: Showing off is an interesting thing. There’s another cooking moment that comes to mind. In Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, there’s quite a vivid description of his cooking this fish stew—

MA: I liked that book.

BLVR: I did too. And that’s an interesting book because it has so much daily texture in it. And I feel that some of those details were wonderfully what the texture of the book was, and why it had the life it had—and then every now and then, for instance that cooking scene, felt a bit like he was just showing off that he knew how to make fish stew.

MA: I don’t think the fish stew was the finest moment in that book. There are some moments in that book which are just exquisite, really… Right at the end, when he’s operating, that’s very fine. And when his daughter comes into the room for the first time, and he hasn’t seen her for a while, and he looks at her fingernails to see if she’s looking after herself, that moment I thought was superb.

BLVR: It’s funny: his squash game essentially got me playing tennis again because it was just so—I hadn’t played tennis for about fifteen years—

MA: Really? And then it got you to start up again, after fifteen years?

BLVR: It was such a vivid description of what it’s like to play a game with somebody. Initially I was thinking, God, do we really need to hear about every point? And then it got me to remember what it was like to play— and now I’m playing again.

MA: Well, that’s good. You see? Fiction changes lives!

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