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Author Junot Diaz says the publishing industry must have uncomfortable conversations about diversity. The alternative, he believes, is "utter, agonizing silence." (Flickr)

To Achieve Diversity In Publishing, A Difficult Dialogue Beats Silence

Aug 20, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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The Simon & Schuster building in Midtown Manhattan. Bushra Rehman says of neighborhoods in her hometown of Queens, N.Y., "There's Pakistani cultural bubbles, Indian cultural bubbles, Bangladeshi cultural bubbles, Afghani. But then everyone still comes here." Johnny Temple, seen here at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, has embarked on what he calls a project of "reverse gentrification."

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Last spring, a group calling itself We Need Diverse Books launched a Twitter campaign to press for greater diversity in children's books. Writer Daniel Jos Older supports the campaign, but he doesn't think it goes far enough.

"We need diverse agents, we need editors, we need diverse book buyers, we need diverse illustrators, and we need diverse executives and CEOs at the top, too."

Older says the industry needs to take an honest look at who holds the power over who gets published. Because as things stand now, Older argues, writers of color often find themselves navigating a world that makes them feel unwelcome.

"Well, let's start out with what we know, which is that publishing is overwhelmingly white," he says. "Now, that's not a controversial fact, but sometimes to point it out becomes a controversial thing — to speak that truth."

Older says that to get work published by a major house, a writer usually needs to get it past a white gatekeeper, an agent or an editor.

"You have to always be conscious of that. Am I going to be submitting something that is going to put the person on the defensive? Is my voice somehow going to be somehow alien or unrecognizable to the person I am submitting it to?"

That kind of self-editing, says Ken Chen, poet and director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, is one reason why writers of color would like to see more change in the industry.

"I think there is a kind of cosmetic appearance of things changing with Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri being two of the central authors in American literature. But it would still be really difficult for someone to go to a bookstore and necessarily see themself."

Too often, Chen says, publishing companies say they would publish more diverse books, but the market just isn't there for them. Chen doesn't buy that.

"Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist," he says. "And if [you] can't imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can't imagine selling books to them. That's not just about a company corporate diversity policy; it's about actually knowing what's going on in communities of color."

Bushra Rehman's debut novel, Corona, is rooted in the neighborhoods of Queens, where South Asian immigrants live and shop. Rehman's novel about a rebellious Pakistani Muslim girl from Queens took her five years to finish and another five to get published. The big publishing companies turned her down, saying the book wouldn't sell.

"That was the one comment that I remember, that there is not an audience for this work," she says. "That always stayed with me, but then that always pushed me to say, 'Well, no, there is — so I'm going to keep on pursuing this.' "

Rehman's persistence paid off when she found a small independent company who wanted to publish Corona. It's been a good experience, but next time, Rehman wants to try again to penetrate the world of the major publishers.

Making It In Midtown

The power center of the industry is in Midtown Manhattan, where the five big publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster, make their home. Inside Simon & Schuster, the lobby bristles with energy, but the entrance to the corporate offices on the 17th floor is quiet and formal. The walls are lined with photos of famous authors. Two black-and-white portraits of the company's founders stand sentry by a doorway.

When Carolyn Reidy, the publisher's CEO, got into the business back in the 1970s, she remembers there were a couple of high-profile black editors — most notably Toni Morrison. But they were rare.

"The large American publishing companies, a lot of them got established in the '20s and '30s," she says. "They were established by relatively wealthy white men, and they sort of perpetuated their own kind, from school connections, things like that."

Reidy believes the industry has changed since those days. She says a diverse workforce is good for business and the culture at large.

"There's a kind of recognition that in order to identify what voices should be heard, and in order to help them express what they're writing as best they can, you actually need to have the diverse population to be able to do that for you. To be able to say to you, we should publish this book, and why."

Dawn Davis is the head of a new Simon & Schuster imprint called 37 Ink. Davis came to Simon & Schuster last year from HarperCollins. There, as publisher of the Amistad imprint, she became known for releasing books by such African-American literary heavyweights as Edward P. Jones, as well as popular best-sellers like Steve Harvey.

Reidy acknowledges Davis, who is African-American, was a good catch. "She brings that world into us. She can speak for it in a way that others of us can't."

Davis has the kind of credentials that go over well in publishing circles. A graduate of Stanford, she says she is used to being one of very few African-Americans in a white world. Davis says, "I think of the publishing world as primarily white, absolutely."

At Amistad, Davis says she focused on African-American works. But at 37 Ink she wants to publish books that represent a diverse array of cultures and viewpoints because, she says, that's what readers want.

"African-American women ... we just learned from Pew are the largest group of readers in the country," she says. "The most likely to read a book: college-educated black women. I tried to forward that to as many people as possible."

Educating others in the business is just part of the job for Davis, but it might not be so necessary if there were more people of color in the industry. She believes that a company like Simon & Schuster is trying, but she says it's not easy to attract young people. Starting salaries are so low, few can afford to take a job in publishing.

"It's very hard to say to your middle-class and working-class parents, after they support you to go to a college: 'I'm going to turn down a Wall Street job (which, I may be the first generation that even has the choice to take a Wall Street job) to go into publishing for half the salary. Is that OK, Mom and Dad?' "

Everyone Needs To 'Be Able To Step Back'

Johnny Temple is the founder of the independent Akashic Books, which is located in a converted warehouse in Brooklyn. Akashic prides itself on its eclectic mix of titles and the ethnic diversity of its authors. The company's motto is "reverse gentrification of the literary world," because, Temple says, they want to attract readers from all kinds of racial and economic backgrounds.

"If the industry doesn't get more economically and ethnically diverse, it's just going to be a pit that people are not going to be able to climb out of, as this certain cultural sphere becomes less relevant to the population at large."

What is needed, argues Older, is an industrywide conversation that looks honestly at the role race and class play in the business of publishing.

"Everyone in the industry needs to be able to step back from their privilege, step back from defensiveness, and have conversations about how the industry and them being in their place of privilege in the industry is causing literature itself and writers in general to not be thriving in the way that it could be."

It's not easy to talk about race and class. It's a conversation that writer Junot Diaz doesn't expect everyone in publishing will embrace. But he says some are ready to take it on.

"I think even somewhere in their gut they know that these uncomfortable, awkward, stumbling dialogues are absolutely necessary. No matter what their flaws, they're better than what's the other option, which is utter, agonizing silence."

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A person runs through smoke deployed by police during a clash between law enforcement officers and protesters in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 13. (AP)

'This Fight Begins In The Heart': Reading James Baldwin As Ferguson Seethes

by Laila Lalami
Aug 19, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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The Simon & Schuster building in Midtown Manhattan. Bushra Rehman says of neighborhoods in her hometown of Queens, N.Y., "There's Pakistani cultural bubbles, Indian cultural bubbles, Bangladeshi cultural bubbles, Afghani. But then everyone still comes here." Johnny Temple, seen here at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, has embarked on what he calls a project of "reverse gentrification."

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It is early August. A black man is shot by a white policeman. And the effect on the community is of "a lit match in a tin of gasoline."

No, this is not Ferguson, Mo. This was Harlem in August 1943, a period that James Baldwin writes about in the essay that gives its title to his seminal collection, Notes of a Native Son.

The story begins with the death of Baldwin's father, a proud, severe preacher who viewed all white people with suspicion, even the kindly schoolteacher who encouraged his son's writings.

But after the young Baldwin left home to work in New Jersey, after he was refused service in bars, restaurants, or bowling alleys because of the color of his skin, he came to understand why his father carried, as he put it, "the weight of white people in the world." Baldwin realized that, all along, his father had tried to prepare him for the "day when [he] would be despised" and to give him a stronger antidote for it than he had found for himself.

The trouble in Harlem that summer started because a white man had shot a black man, and while the facts of the case were murky, the rumors were not. Those rumors flew through Harlem easily because, Baldwin tells us, they "corroborated [people's] hates and fears so perfectly." And then, "Harlem exploded."

The people smashed "stores, pawnshops, restaurants," all the establishments that symbolized white power in a black neighborhood. On the day of his father's burial, Baldwin drove through Harlem in a "wilderness of smashed plate glass."

The shooting, the funeral and the riot, taking place so close together, led Baldwin to realize that we must always hold in our minds two opposite ideas. The first is that "injustice is commonplace" in our world. But the second is that we cannot be complacent. We "must never ... accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all [our] strength. This fight begins ... in the heart."

Laila Lalami is the author of The Moor's Account, based on the true story of the first black explorer of America.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The Dey House, a 140-year-old mansion, is home to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the oldest MFA writing programs in the country. Director Lan Samantha Chang -- who attended the workshop as a student -- has made it a priority to attract students and faculty from diverse backgrounds to the program. (AP)

In Elite MFA Programs, The Challenge Of Writing While 'Other'

Aug 19, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz has been a high-profile critic of the monochrome look of many writers' workshops. Ayana Mathis will be returning to the Iowa Writers' Workshop as a member of the faculty, despite -- or because of -- her own frustrations as a student there. Johnny Temple, seen here at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, has embarked on what he calls a project of "reverse gentrification."

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For many writers, a contract with one of the major publishing houses is the Holy Grail — and getting accepted to a prestigious Master of Fine Arts program may bring aspiring writers one step closer. But these elite writing programs have a history steeped in whiteness, and writers of color don't always feel welcome.

Best-selling author Junot Diaz recently caused a stir when he blasted MFA programs for being "too white" in an article for The New Yorker. MFA writing programs can be expensive and hard to get into, says Diaz, but they can be well worth the time and effort.

"It certainly ain't bad for you — especially the more prestigious institution that you get attached to," he says. "It creates all sorts of opportunities. An MFA program can be incredibly valuable."

Diaz enrolled in a creative writing program at Cornell University 20 years ago. The trouble is, he argues, not much has changed since then.

"Things have not kept up with the absolute transformation of our society," he says. "There's nothing about creative writing programs that I have seen that leads me to believe that, in general, that the diversity found at the institutional level even begins to equal the diversity not only of our, just, country, but of our readerships."

The 'Other' At The Table

Around the same time Diaz was at Cornell, Lan Samantha Chang was a student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Back then, the head of the program was writer Frank Conroy, who gave Chang some advice: If you don't want to be typecast, don't keep writing stories about Chinese-American characters. Chang didn't resent the advice, but she couldn't follow it.

"It was only by writing about Asian-American characters that I had been able to access whatever it was that made me write in the first place," she says. "There was no way I could have written about anything else. Those were the stories I wanted to tell, and I was sort of stuck, for better or worse, with my subject matter."

Now that Chang directs the same workshop she attended as a student, she encourages young writers to try to find their voice, much as she did.

Iowa is one of the oldest MFA writing programs in the U.S., and before Chang, all of the directors were white men. The program is so respected, Chang says, they have to turn away some of the editors and agents who are eager to hunt for new talent. Graduates of Iowa often become well-known writers — or editors or teachers.

"Because we're large, because we're the oldest, because we have such high-quality students, the people who come to our program have a great impact on the conversation about literature that takes place after they leave."

That conversation, says Chang, needs to reflect the broader world. She has made it a priority to attract more students and faculty from diverse backgrounds to her program. One young writer whose application got her attention about six years ago was Justin Torres.

"He said something like, 'I'm a queer Latino writer,' and he had this extraordinary talent. Justin got into a million MFA programs."

Chang was determined to woo Torres to Iowa, but Torres himself wasn't so sure.

"A lot of my reservations and hesitations were about the diversity of the program and the diversity of the town," he explains. "I was coming from Brooklyn as a queer Puerto Rican, and I was just nervous about what it would be like to come to Iowa City. And sometimes it's just exhausting if you're going to go into a class of middle-class, straight, white people. You're just automatically that 'other.' "

Torres decided he might need his own support system in Iowa, so he convinced his close friend, African-American writer Ayana Mathis, to move with him. The next year, Mathis got into the workshop as well.

Both say that Chang has done a lot to make the program more welcoming to people of color. Even so, both had moments of frustration.

Speaking of her experience, Mathis points to one incident when a class was discussing her work.

"One of the characters is sort of referred to as having something like almond skin, something that would identify the character as black. There was a person in the workshop who said they had been reading happily up to that point, but then felt like they were reading a story about race — which somehow invalidated what they'd been reading up to that point. So, things like that certainly happened ..."

"And make you want to pull your hair out," Torres interjects.

"... And make you want to pull your hair out," Mathis agrees.

The gamble on Iowa paid off for both of them, though. After graduating, Torres published his first novel, We the Animals, to critical acclaim. Mathis' debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Mathis will be returning to Iowa as a member of the faculty.

"I would like to think that Knopf would have published my novel if I'd had a completely different experience and a completely different agent and never went to Iowa. I don't know if that would be the case or if it wouldn't be. So it's really transformative in terms of a writer's prospects."

Mathis adds, "If there isn't a real representation of writers of color who are able to take advantage of that kind of access, that's a problem."

'You Are Normal. You Are Fine The Way You Are'

Finding a supportive writing program wasn't easy for Bushra Rehman, a Pakistani-American writer who grew up in a Muslim community in Queens, N.Y. Rehman's first novel, Corona, which took five years to get published, is named for the neighborhood in Queens where she lived with her family.

Settled at a table in a restaurant in nearby Jackson Heights, Rehman talks about her own experience in an MFA program at Brooklyn College. Anti-Muslim sentiment was strong in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and she felt her classmates did not understand her work.

It took her six years to finish the program, because she kept dropping out. At the same time, the program gave her the opportunity to work with writers like Michael Cunningham and Susan Choi — so she always returned.

"I did learn about the craft of fiction the hard way," Rehman says. "I was able to deal with all the rejection once I started to publish my book, because I had already dealt with it in the classroom. So, there's a little bit of stubbornness that definitely was encouraged in me there."

But she observed the same need for support as Torres. "Stubbornness takes a lot of energy and can be exhausting — which is why I think it's very, very important to have another community outside of the MFA program."

Rehman found that sense of community in the Asian American Writers' Workshop. There, she found others who better understood her and her work.

"There was so much less competition, because everyone is so excited to hear references that they understand. So, I had fellow Asian-American writers saying, 'God, that is so funny; my mom does that.' They were having such a catharsis from hearing my work. It was the opposite of competition; it was, 'Please write more so that I can laugh more.' "

The Asian American Writers' Workshop is in a big Manhattan loft lined with book-stuffed shelves. Poet Ken Chen is the executive director.

"I kind of think about a lot of what we do as trying to create an ethnic counterculture," Chen says.

The books on the shelves there are not all written by Asian writers, Chen points out. In the same way, all kinds of writers are welcome at the workshop, he says, though there is an emphasis on mentoring Asian-Americans.

"The point of the workshop, in terms of creating an alternative space, is not to remind people they're Asian, but to remind them that they're human. It's to normalize them."

He says that the writers there often feel estranged by a mainstream culture that marginalizes them for their names, their accents or the ways they look.

"You are constantly marked by how different you are," he says. "The point of an alternative art space like the workshop is to continually say: You are normal. You are fine the way you are. Tell your story or tell a story that has nothing to do with you. And you can tell whatever story you want to tell."

For many young writers from different ethnic backgrounds, it comes down to this: They believe the diversity they experience in their daily lives should be reflected in the books they read and the stories they write. And if a culture that supports that doesn't yet exist, they are willing to create it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Hymns (iStockphoto.com)

Falling In Love With Language — Through The Power Of Hymns

by Juan Vidal
Aug 17, 2014

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Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz has been a high-profile critic of the monochrome look of many writers' workshops. Ayana Mathis will be returning to the Iowa Writers' Workshop as a member of the faculty, despite -- or because of -- her own frustrations as a student there. Johnny Temple, seen here at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, has embarked on what he calls a project of "reverse gentrification."

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Anyone thoughtful — no matter what their spiritual leaning — can appreciate the art of the hymn: the rhythm, the sonorous language, the discipline and structure. My first encounter with that power — despite having been part of a youth group as a teenager — came when I was a freshman at a dignified religious institution. I remember cigarette smoke and a song, a somber little something blaring from a nearby room. Three of us stood in the parking lot with Newports hanging from our teeth. I don't recall our conversation, but that night I had my first true experience with hymns and their lyrical magic.

If you want to unravel that magic, I recommend starting with Shakespeare's Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age. Journalist Daniel Swift offers a scholarly treatise on cultural history, Shakespeare's plays, and Anglican liturgy, among other things. It's an arresting but heavy read, one that should be of course followed by The Book of Common Prayer, where it finds its inspiration. Swift calls the latter a "history of response" and argues that, in its pages, "Shakespeare found a body of contested speech: a pattern and a music of mourning." Both works are rich and welcome companions to any collection of hymns. The Oremus Hymnal, a collection of pieces for varying occasions, is a good one for the uninitiated. "At even, ere the sun was set" an evening read, resolves:

Once more 'tis eventide, and we,
oppressed with various ills, draw near;
what if thy form we cannot see?
We know and feel that thou art here.

The thing about a beautifully wrought hymn, that age-old lyric poem, is that there is nothing like it — and it would be wrong to say the best ones don't go at the heart head-on. Again, no matter where you stand on heaven and hell, there is power in a hymn. And if we're blessed enough to be able to sit quietly with one, we might see that hymns contain everything: death, laughter, loss. They tell a story about our relationship to the divine. A brute truth: No other form of expression can so richly translate the depth and breadth of authentic religious experience like a well-conceived song of praise.

While much has been written about Shakespeare and how religious he may or may not have been, he understood the power of hymns — and there's no denying the explicit biblical allusions in his work, like this passage from Sonnet 74:

My spirit is thine, the better part of me:
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.

And even our most hailed rock icons, from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong, embraced the art form. Throughout their storied lives — packed to the fullest with drugs and sex and all that comes with towering fame — certain convictions remained. As did their adoration for these old compositions.

Willie Nelson, who grew up Methodist, holds a somewhat flexible set of beliefs when it comes to religion. That didn't stop him from offering a masterful, dare I say bad-ass, rendition of "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)." His country smooth melancholy just pierces, while it all slowly builds to the dash of hope consistent with the song's essence. Leave it to Willie and his best friend Trigger, a weathered 1969 Martin N-20 guitar, to have you feeling feelings.

Then there's Sam Cooke. Really, there is always Sam Cooke. His spin on "The Last Mile Of The Way," penned in 1908 by Johnson Oatman, is nothing if not one of the most incredible things. When Cooke hits the refrain, suddenly hope is a physical thing, something you can grab hold of.

When I've gone the last mile of the way,
I will rest at the close of the day;
And I know there are joys that await me,
When I've gone the last mile of the way

It would do us good to revisit some of the poetry of a time so different than our own. These old texts merit our attention; for me they carry the same resonance as Shakespeare. Not only are they rich in history, they also draw us to appreciate the wonder of words. Instead of viewing the vocabulary as archaic, I've come to see hymns as the language of prayer, and as a way of connecting with those that have come before me. The cigarettes are mostly gone, but I'm still at the mercy of what happened when I fell in love with that language.


Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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'Lace' cover. ( )

Forbidden 'Lace': A Book That Belonged To The Convent Girls In Zimbabwe

by Irene Sabatini
Aug 17, 2014

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Irene Sabatini is also author of The Boy Next Door. Ayana Mathis will be returning to the Iowa Writers' Workshop as a member of the faculty, despite -- or because of -- her own frustrations as a student there. Johnny Temple, seen here at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, has embarked on what he calls a project of "reverse gentrification."

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I first read Lace as a 16-year-old schoolgirl at Dominican Convent High School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in the 1980s. I remember that chunky, glitzy novel being passed around during math, biology, religious education classes ... under our desks, pages earmarked as it moved along ... for your reading pleasure ...

What giggles it provoked; how many hushed discussions it spawned, and how those we called the "forward" girls dissected and expounded on the text. And all of it done right under the noses of the austere nuns.

The women of Lace — Judy, Pagan, Kate and Maxine — battle and strive from the 1940s right up to the late '70s to fulfill their ambitions. They do it on their own terms, at times ruthless, at times fragile. There is Kate, the supremely talented war correspondent; Maxine, the uber-successful interior designer; Judy, the public relations dynamo; and Pagan, the business-oriented, charity fundraiser.

And, of course, Lili, single-minded actress, clawing her way up from B-movie hell to A-list star, uttering those unforgettable, pivotal words: "Which one of you b - - - - - - is my mother?" when she finally manages — through all kinds of scheming — to bring the four now-estranged women together and confront them in suite 1701 of a New York hotel.

To whom the book belonged remains a mystery, but in a sense it belonged to all of us convent girls in that sleepy town in southern Zimbabwe. We were having our eyes opened in more ways than one. We took turns taking it home, like a beloved class pet.

Lace traveled from my own modest home in a newly integrated, formerly whites-only suburb, which lay on the fringes of the blacks-only township, to the lavish hillside mansions of my white schoolmates. It drew us all together like only a juicy novel, set in exotic lands could.

Many years later (married and a mother of two, living in Switzerland) I revisited Lace. I was writing what would become my debut novel, The Boy Next Door, which draws, in part, on my teenage years in Bulawayo. I was now in the very country where some of the glamorous action takes place. The Switzerland of private boarding schools, chateaus, chalets and the jet-set, worlds away from my own hometown, and yet the book still held its exotic appeal.

Shirley Conran really knows her characters and, boy, does she have the vocabulary and artistic flair to realize them. They are alive, bristling with desire and energy as they make their way in the world.

There is glamour, intrigue, scandal, and such wonderfully realized, provocative, unapologetic female characters that, surely, they can be considered feminist icons in their own way. They are go-getting, take-charge, make-things-happen women. They want and demand fulfilling careers that soar to stratospheric heights, and great sex to boot.

But even then the fundamental feminist question was being asked: Can women really have it all, or does something have to be sacrificed along the way?

In light of all this, perhaps it's time to take Lace out from that second inner row on my bookshelf and proudly slot it, right next to Simone de Beauvoir.

Irene Sabatini's latest book, Peace and Conflict, comes out in November.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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