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Imagine Otherwise: Sawyer Lovett on Queer Southern Memoir Zines

Imagine Otherwise: Sawyer Lovett on Queer Southern Memoir Zines

retro
January 27, 2016
Sawyer Lovett wearing a black shirt

Guest: Sawyer Lovett

Sawyer Lovett is a writer, bookseller, and co-host of two podcasts: Queering the Shelves and Book Jawn.

He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and their hedgehog. Sometimes he writes zines and blogs, and occasionally people pay him to make balloon animals. In his spare time, he enjoys pickles, punks, and coffee.

Sawyer is the author of the memoir Everybody Else’s Girl, a tale of abuse and red-hot pain, of growing up and hard beat-downs growing up queer in the US south.

Sawyer is also the author of a brand new book called Retrospect: A Tazewell’s Favorite Eccentric Zinethology, published by Mend My Dress Press. Retrospect brings together selections from Sawyer’s long-running zine to explore growing up poor, queer, and lonely in a conservative small town in Virginia, building and losing communities and friendships, loss, abusive relationships, balloon artistry, and finding hope and love.

Sawyer Lovett wearing a black shirt. Text reads: Zines are were I learned feminism, riot grrrl, queer theory, social justice.

People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

    Welcome to episode two of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is Sarah Sawyers-Lovett, who’s a writer, bookseller and co-host of two podcasts, including Queering the Shelves. She lives in Philadelphia with her wife and their hedgehog. Sometimes she writes zines and blogs and occasionally people pay her to make balloon animals. In her spare time she enjoys pickles, punks, and coffee. Sarah is the author of the excellent memoir Everyone Else’s Girl, a tale of abuse and red-hot pain, of growing up and hard beat-downs, growing up queer in the U.S. South. Sarah is also the author of a brand new book called Retrospect: A Tazewell’s Favorite Eccentric Zinethology, published by Mend My Dress Press. And she’s going to be talking about that book with us today. Retrospect brings together selections from Sarah’s long-running zine to explore growing up poor, queer and lonely in a conservative small town in Virginia. Building and losing communities and friendships, loss, abusive relationships, balloon artistry and finding hope and love. Today Sarah will be talking with us about that new book, her podcast and what it means to imagine otherwise.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:38):

    Welcome Sarah, thanks for being with us.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (01:41):

    Hello. Thanks for that introduction. I’m going to have to ask you to write the copy on my next book.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:46):

    Anytime. I’m really excited to be able to talk with you. I’ve known you for several years now. We’ve worked together on a couple of different projects. So I really like your writing in particular. I know you do a lot of other kinds of projects that I hope we can talk about too as well, but you’re just such a fantastic evocative writer. I’d love to start off talking about this fabulous new book that you have. So it’s called Retrospect, it’s an anthology. Tell me a little bit about this.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (02:15):

    Okay. I started writing zines when I was pretty young, it was like 15 or 16, and so I’ve always done zines. And then a couple of years ago I had written this memoir and I was shopping it around to publishers and one of the publishers that I approached was Mend My Dress Press, who all they do is zinethology and they do such a good job of it. Their work is just amazing. And so I had said, “listen, I know this isn’t typically what you guys do, but I would hate to miss out on the opportunity to work with somebody I respect and admire because I didn’t ask.” And they were, “well, no, this isn’t really… We don’t publish memoirs, but we know that your Zine has been around for a while, so if you are interested in anthologizing it, we can talk about that.”

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (03:10):

    And I had been feeling like I had grown out of the title for a while. Tazewell is the name of my hometown and I haven’t lived there since 2010 and I’ve lived there off and on through my life. And I just… I felt like Philadelphia was rapidly becoming home and maybe I needed to start thinking about the ways in which the idea of home changes. And so this was a really good organic way to put that title to rest and to sort of have a place to house all of these things that I had written over the past however many years. So that’s how that came about.

    Cathy Hannabach (03:53):

    That sounds awesome.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (03:55):

    Thanks. I’m pretty stoked about it.

    Cathy Hannabach (03:57):

    That was a pretty great relationship with the publisher, right? You were pitching one book and they’re like, “Oh, we love it, but we don’t really do this, but we totally want your next one.”

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (04:05):

    Right? Yeah. It was a really big surprise. And I’m still just sort of gobsmacked and flattered and astounded that I get to work with these two badass ladies, that I have known from around Zinedom for a long time, and I’m constantly just in awe of. So yeah.

    Cathy Hannabach (04:29):

    Awesome. Why zines? What is it about that medium that does something for you?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (04:39):

    I think zines are the first place that I, in particular, found my voice. I found them when I was a teenager and I was like, “oh, this is a thing that I could do.” And then… So you start doing it, and the great thing about zines is that as soon as you put your first copy in the photocopier and send it to somebody, you’re part of this really connected community who overall is so supportive. And zines are where I learned about feminism and Riot Grrrl and queer theory and social justice. And so I think at this point I’ve been involved for zines for longer in my life than I haven’t. And so I think that’s always going to be a part of my life.

    Cathy Hannabach (05:26):

    Yeah. Do you think since this is being published as a book, as the traditional format of a book, do you think that’s going to change the audience? Or maybe how an audience experiences a zine versus how an audience would experience a book, even if it is an anthology of what was originally a Zine?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (05:47):

    I haven’t really thought about that, but it’s a really good question. I hope not. It is an anthology and it’s a ton of zines, and the great thing about zines is that you can pick them up and put them down and they’re short, so you get this really dense look into somebody’s life, without committing to a whole book. And I think that my favorite thing about the zine community is that it’s pretty anti… I can’t say that word.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:21):

    Hierarchical?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (06:22):

    Yes. Thank you. So I think that there is this dispute of books being more legitimate and I don’t feel like that’s true. I feel like this is a book, it’s fine. I’m very proud of it. But I also really like connecting people with zine fests and getting zines in the mail and writing letters and doing all of these other things that are very connected to zines and punk rock and Riot Grrrl and my childhood, rather than my book seller life, where I go to book seller conferences and talk to fiction writers and things like that. And so I feel like it’s a pretty big dichotomy. And to me the difference is like work versus the work that you do because you are driven to do it. Does that make sense?

    Cathy Hannabach (07:31):

    Yeah, definitely. That kind of artistic and activist kind of impetus behind why you might make a zine, but also kind of why you might get involved in the collaborations that can collectively produce those or circulate them, or the kind of communities you can build around those. That makes a lot of sense.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (07:52):

    Good.

    Cathy Hannabach (07:53):

    I’d like to talk a little bit more about collaboration. Because I know that you work with a lot of people on various projects, you kind of alluded to a little bit, with zine fests and circulating zines and being part of zine communities. But how have you found that experience of collaboration or collective action, collective mobilization, whatever that means for you? What are some of your favorite people or communities to collaborate with and why?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (08:23):

    Oh my gosh.

    Cathy Hannabach (08:25):

    That’s a big question. I know.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (08:26):

    It is, yeah. Well, I want to preface this by saying that I have the opportunity to work with so many people that I respect and admire, and I am a couple of cups shy of my normal level of caffeine. So if I leave anything out, it is not personal, but I really… I have loved working with Neely and Colleen from Mend My Dress. It’s been a really… They’ve been super supportive, throughout all my [inaudible 00:08:57] and anxiety about this book. I’ve really liked working with the people at Pioneers Press, they’re super supportive of my work and I really enjoyed that. The people at my bookstore are really wonderful. Both the customers and my coworkers.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (09:16):

    I am actually working on a collaborative project with my friend, Marija, and we spend every weekend working together. And then through the week, when we’re not actually working together, we just email each other about this project that we’re working on. so that’s really good.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (09:32):

    I work with grace on my primary podcast, which is called Book Jawn. And then… I feel like saying that I work with my wife on a podcast is kind of a misrepresentation because it’s not really work. We’re just hanging out talking about books, and sometimes she lets me assign books to her to read, which is really nice because she’s a teacher and she usually does the assigning herself. But through that, event planning, zine planning, I’ve worked with a lot of people that I really like, and I feel so lucky to be able to hang out with my friends and then put together these events and projects, that sort of mobilize the things that we have in common, into something that creates conversation.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:29):

    Awesome. Since you brought it up, I think this is a nice dovetail into talking about your new podcast, or, I guess, both of your podcasts if you want to. But I know that you just launched a new one with Ryan called Queering the Shelves that I’d love to hear more about.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (10:45):

    Okay. So can I… I’m going to talk about Book Jawn first because that’s [crosstalk 00:10:49].

    Cathy Hannabach (10:47):

    Yeah, that’s fine.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (10:49):

    So my friend, Grace, and I have worked together at the Wooden Shoe and then later at Big Blue Marble Books, and we have a lot in common, but we also have pretty different taste in books. So we both love the same sort of nerdy young adult books, and then we have pretty divergent taste in adult lit. So we were talking one day about podcasts and podcasts that we liked. And I was like, “I’d love to do a podcast,” but I didn’t really want to do any of the technical stuff. And she was like, “I could do all that.” So I thought, “all right, I’ll give this a shot.” And it just turned into this thing that we do every week. We meet up, we talk about books, and I do some of the technical stuff now, which is pretty nice. So we had put together this podcast that I really like and it’s an opportunity to talk about books and publishing and book selling and feminism and social justice and anything.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (11:52):

    But I really wanted to talk about exclusively queer stuff, so I started a queer book group, and that was a really good opportunity to talk about one book a month. And my favorite person to talk about books with is my actual favorite person in the world. And so I had suggested to try and that we do a queer book podcast, thinking that she would be like, “no, that’s your thing. I don’t want to do it.” But she was pretty game for it and she was like, “I’m not going to do anything except for read books. You are going to have to do all of the other stuff.” So once a week we put a bunch of genres into a website called Thing Randomizer and we pick a genre and then each of us read a book or two within that genre by queer, trans, gender queer, gender nonconforming authors, people within the queer spectrum. And then we talk about it for half an hour.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (12:53):

    Wow I can’t…

    Cathy Hannabach (12:55):

    That sounds awesome.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (12:56):

    Yeah. It’s a lot of fun.

    Cathy Hannabach (12:57):

    Do you find that it gives you a chance to read a lot of stuff that… Or it gives you an excuse to read a lot of stuff that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily have time for or would take you longer to get to?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (13:10):

    Yeah, I do actually. I mean, I’m a book seller so I wind up with a lot of books, but if I don’t prioritize things, then they just wind up collecting dust on a shelf. So the way that I read books in my professional life is that I arranged them by pub date, and when I’m picking the books that I will read for review, if there is a book by a queer person, a person of color, a gender nonconforming person, somebody who is traditionally marginalized, I will prioritize that book over a person who is white, cis or straight or a dude. And so I do wind up reading a fair amount of diverse books, but I can’t read everything. And so this is a really good opportunity for me to go back and read backless titles that I maybe haven’t gotten around to.

    Cathy Hannabach (14:02):

    Awesome.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (14:04):

    Yeah.

    Cathy Hannabach (14:05):

    Well, as a fellow podcaster here, and as a much newer one than you are, any advice for folks interested in creating a podcast or just wanting to learn more about why you’d make a podcast?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (14:21):

    Well, they’re fun, to begin with.

    Cathy Hannabach (14:23):

    They are really fun, yeah.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (14:25):

    I really like listening to podcasts and they’re kind of like audio zines because anybody can make them. The technology is pretty accessible. I bought a $4 microphone from the internet and I use that to record a couple of podcasts a week. And even if you can’t swing the $4 you can use your phone or your computer, and the information is there to learn about, you just have to have something to say and then the desire to say it. Which is sort of exactly like the way that zines are a medium for marginalized people.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:06):

    That is a great connection.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (15:08):

    Thanks.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:09):

    Yeah. And I often hear them talked about as a combination of radio and blogs, right? So you have the ones that are super heavily produced, that are often made by really awesome companies with a background in radio. But then you also have the ones that are more like personal blogs, almost, people just, as you said, using their phone or using whatever kind of technology they can get their hands on. That can also be really interesting, right? because it lets people tell stories that wouldn’t necessarily be able to get on the radio or wouldn’t necessarily be able to be part of mass media.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (15:45):

    Right.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:46):

    Awesome. So one of the reasons why I wanted to bring you on the Imagine Otherwise podcast, aside from you have this kickass new book that people should know about and buy, cause it’s amazing, but also because your work as a zine author, as an artist, as a queer activist, as a memoirist, podcast host, bookseller, all of these kinds of things that you do, is a really fabulous example of the type of work that this Imagine Otherwise podcast highlights. And so I was curious if you could say a little bit more about how you see your work in all of those realms, some of those realms, whichever you prefer. How you see your work combining art activism and or academia, in the service of social justice.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (16:34):

    So yeah, I have been thinking about this question a lot in the past couple of days and I feel like I am a feminist, I’m an activist. That is part of my identity. And so that, to a certain degree, informs everything that I do. It informs the way that I talk about books to people who come into my bookstore, it informs the way that I write. It informs the things that we talk about on these podcasts. I also feel like, as somebody who identifies as an activist and a feminist, part of the hard work of that… I will say… Okay, so the easy part is having these places that I can put my thoughts and opinions to work. So people will come in and ask me to suggest a book to them, and I’m happy to do that. I’m happy to have this podcast to talk about queer theory and books.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (17:48):

    But having venues also means that in my everyday life, when somebody says something shitty at the supermarket or I hear some kid call another kid a fag, that I have to square up to the hard conversations and say, “you know what, I am an activist.” And so if I pass by this moment and don’t say anything, I have missed an opportunity to stand up for somebody who maybe couldn’t. And so, I do have this privilege and I want to use it responsibly. So what can I do for people who may not have the opportunity to? In what ways can I amplify voices that are often silenced? And to a certain degree, it’s a case of finding when to speak up and finding when to shut up and listen. Does that make sense?

    Cathy Hannabach (18:54):

    yeah. And that’s a hard thing to… That’s a fine line, right? But it’s an important one.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (19:02):

    Yeah, I agree.

    Cathy Hannabach (19:03):

    Definitely. So, one of my favorite questions to ask people, and I started asking this when I used to teach, and so I used to ask my students this. And when I discovered this question, it completely changed my teaching and it changed how I approached a lot of this kind of collaborative activist academic artwork. But I want to know what you want. So this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise. And one of the things I talk a lot about with guests is their version of a better world, or the kind of world that they’re working towards when they create their amazing art, or they publish their books, or they teach their classes, or they do whatever it is that they do in the world. So what’s the world you’re working towards? What do you want?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (19:54):

    I think that’s hard. What I want is to be a good writer. And a writer who works hard to be responsible with my voice. I want to create a community of people who prioritize feminism and black and trans and people of color and people with disabilities. I want to… Can I start over?

    Cathy Hannabach (20:34):

    Yeah, go ahead.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (20:36):

    Okay. That’s such a hard question.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:37):

    I know it’s a giant question.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (20:39):

    It is.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:40):

    And its designed to be kind of… It pushes you to identify that, right? And to figure that out for yourself. Sorry. So the background behind that is that… Or maybe this will help, maybe It’ll just make it more confusing, I don’t know.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:55):

    But Dorothy Allison wrote a forward to Amber Hollibaugh’s book, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Which is a collection of essays that Hollibaugh had written over the course of several years, about race, about place, about regionality, about queerness, about gender feminism, sex work, all this kind of awesome stuff. And Dorothy Allison, in the forward, she and Amber had known each other for a very, very long time and had done all this really amazing work together over the decades. And she was telling a story about how, when they first became friends, which was very close to when they first became collaborative colleagues, compatriots, what have you, in activists worlds. And Dorothy Allison writes that it was really scary for the two of them, two fem women, two lesbian fem, women who had grown up very, very poor, who had grown up in intensely racist spaces, they grew up in different regions, but grown up in intensely racist spaces, and wanted to grow into something other than that. Right? And had to build a world that was something other than that and something that could fight that.

    Cathy Hannabach (22:13):

    And they said that when they first got together as friends, it was really… They were both really nervous to tell each other what they wanted, what world they wanted instead. And that was the scariest question that they could possibly face. It wasn’t “how do you do this really challenging thing?” Or “how do you overhaul structural racism?” Or “how do you survive intense abuse?” Which both of them write about extensively. But the scariest question that they could imagine was what do you want? Because when you’re growing up in a context in which you’re told you’re never allowed to want anything, that’s the scariest thing you could ever possibly be presented with, is the possibility that you’re allowed to want something, right? And so Dorothy Allison is, as you know, is just this amazing writer that everything that she writes, it just makes you cry.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (23:05):

    I had a full sobbing breakdown at her thing at The Writers House.

    Cathy Hannabach (23:10):

    Oh yeah. She’s just… She blows me away. But she said that “Amber and I realized,” she’s speaking this, “Amber and I realized that revolutions happen when you look at each other and say I want, and mean it. And we meant it.” And that quote just kills me. But that’s the impetus behind this question. It’s a scary question, I realize, because it means being vulnerable. Because when we want something, we’re vulnerable. When we have desires, we’re vulnerable. Right? Because someone can take that away, someone can challenge that, someone knows something about us. So I don’t mean for it to be an invasive question, but it is kind of an intense political and ethical question of what do you actually want? What world do you want? What are you working towards? Because that’s of course the first step in the revolution, right? It’s figuring that out.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (24:06):

    Okay. I think I’m ready.

    Cathy Hannabach (24:07):

    Okay.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (24:09):

    I think that helped, thank you. That is an amazing quote.

    Cathy Hannabach (24:12):

    I know, right?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (24:14):

    Alright. So I want to do work that fulfills me, that other people appreciate and that adds value to their lives. I want a family, which is not something that I’ve always been comfortable saying that I wanted, even if that family is just chosen family or glitter family, as I like to call it.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (24:41):

    I want a community of feminists, of people that I like and admire and respect and I want to be valued by that community and I want for us to celebrate each other. I want to do work that changes the world and I want to be part of my friend’s doing work that changes the world. I want to read books and hang art and listen to music that my friends have made that is valuable and important to them. And I want to wake up every morning until I’m like a thousand to my favorite person in the world, and to fall asleep beside of her, and to let that not be a controversial thing.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (25:38):

    I want to watch the queer community celebrate and protect the people who are most vulnerable instead of prioritizing white masculine guys. And I want it to be about celebrating our differences, rather than being an attractive marketing demographic.

    Cathy Hannabach (26:08):

    That’s a pretty fantastic vision.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (26:10):

    Thanks.

    Cathy Hannabach (26:13):

    I want that too.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (26:14):

    I want a lot more than that and I’m sure that that will change. I’m never not going to want more, but I think what I want will obviously always change, depending on when you ask the question, but I want to be actively moving towards that world with people who share that vision.

    Cathy Hannabach (26:42):

    That’s awesome.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (26:43):

    Thanks.

    Cathy Hannabach (26:44):

    Yeah. Well, it sounds like you’re off to a pretty good start with that. Didn’t mean to get heavy at the end there, but this is a really good… I think it’s a good way to open out onto… So we talked about specific projects you’re working on and specific publications and stuff, but this is the kind of impetus behind it all, right? This is the vision, this is the big picture, this is the “why does it all matter?” Kind of thing. So I’m glad we got to open out onto some of those collective as well as individual desires. So thank you.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (27:19):

    Sure.

    Cathy Hannabach (27:22):

    So where can we find you online and where can we buy your fabulous new book, Retrospect, and where can we listen to your podcasts?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (27:30):

    Alright, you got a pen? Just kidding.

    Cathy Hannabach (27:34):

    This will also be in the show notes, by the way, but it’s nice to hear you actually say it.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (27:38):

    Oh, thanks. Yeah, so I occasionally blog at punkjoanofarc.com, not as often as I should. Most of the time when I do writing it’s about books and it’s on bookjawnpodcast.com Or queerpodcast.com. You can get my book from my Etsy and I’ll send you the link to that, or maybe I already have. And you can get it from the Mend My Dress Press website as well. I think actually you can probably just Google Retrospect and my name and places that you can buy it will come up.

    Cathy Hannabach (28:15):

    Cool. Yeah, and that will… I’ll put all those in the show notes as well as the places that your book is available.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (28:24):

    Thanks.

    Cathy Hannabach (28:24):

    Yeah, so thank you so much. This has been really fantastic.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (28:28):

    Yeah, thanks for having me on the show. It was a lot of fun.

    Cathy Hannabach (28:30):

    Yeah, so check out Sarah’s new book, Retrospect, her zinethology. Also, I highly recommend her memoir, Everybody Else’s Girl, if you haven’t already had a chance to look at that. From what I understand, Retrospect picks up where that leaves off, so if you want a kind of mini binge experience over the next week or so, you can pick up both and read them in order. And also be sure to check out Sarah’s… Both of her podcasts Book Jawn and Queering the Shelves. Do you have anything that you want to add?

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (29:05):

    Oh yeah, I should mentioned that Everybody Else’s Girl is out of print now. So I have a few copies in stock, you can get this from my Etsy, but I don’t think that you can get them anywhere else.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:14):

    Oh no.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (29:15):

    Yeah, we can probably get them used online somewhere or other.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:19):

    Well, clearly we should start a campaign to get that back in print.

     Sarah Sawyers-Lovett (29:23):

    Oh, I don’t know.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:26):

    Well, then at least check out Sarah’s Etsy shop to get the last few precious copies of that, because it’s absolutely not to be missed.

    Cathy Hannabach (29:34):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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