The Podcast - S2 Ep4: Muslim romance right out of Jane Austen

Author Uzma Jalaluddin is deconstructing - and making us fall in love with - her Muslim heroes

  
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Hello dear friends,

We’re heading into the holidays - and next week our topic is Bad Families from Jane Austen, just in time for our family gatherings for the US holiday, Thanksgiving Day. Stay tuned for that!

But first, let’s talk about romance.

Specifically, let’s talk about Muslim romance.

The author Uzma Jalaluddin is well known in the Jane Austen world for her retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Her novel Ayesha At Last puts Lizzy Bennet - or Ayesha - in a large Muslim family in the Scarborough neighborhood of Toronto, where she’s navigating complicated cousins, domineering matriarchs, and the rituals of marriage proposals, all while hoping to find the time to follow her ambitions for poetry.

Writer Uzma Jalaluddin is writing Muslim romance, with her latest novel ‘Hana Khan Carries On’ and her Jane Austen-inspired retelling ‘Ayesha At Last.’ Both novels challenge readers with traditional Muslim heroes.                               Photo | Courtesy of Uzma Jalaluddin
Author Uzma Jalaluddin is writing Muslim romance, with her latest novel ‘Hana Khan Carries On’ and her Jane Austen-inspired retelling ‘Ayesha At Last.’ Both novels are romcoms featuring traditional Muslim heroes. Photo | courtesy of the author

Uzma Jalaluddin herself seems outrageously busy.

When she’s not writing novels, teaching high school, and parenting, she writes a column for the Toronto Star about education, family, and life - it’s called “Samosas and Maple Syrup.”

Ms. Jalaluddin’s latest novel is Hana Khan Carries On. It’s been optioned for the screen by Amazon Studios and writer-producer Mindy Kaling.

In this conversation, Uzma Jalaluddin tells us how she discovered Jane Austen - as a teen, at the local library in the Toronto neighborhood she grew up in - Scarborough. That neighborhood is also the setting for both of her romcom novels, Ayesha At Last and Hana Khan Carries On. It’s a diverse, vibrant neighborhood that now her readers also feel right at home in - at least in our imaginations.

Enjoy this podcast, available on Spotify and Apple, or by simply clicking Play, above. Check out the links to more Muslim women writers and artists below, send us other recommendations, and leave us a comment!

And for those who prefer words to audio or like both, here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Uzma Jalaluddin 

I was - I am and was - a voracious reader. Growing up, I was constantly in the library. I was that kid who - the high school that I went to was right across the street from a large public library. And so during lunch breaks after school, I would just head over to the library and borrow books and hang out there. And I just studied there, I would just basically live there. And even my school library, of course, had a pretty good collection of books. And that's really where I was among my people, when I was in the library.

Plain Jane 

And was that in Scarborough, Toronto? 

Uzma Jalaluddin 

That's right. It was in Scarborough. It's the Cedarbrae library, if any of your listeners are from Toronto. It’s a very large building,

Plain Jane 

And shout out to libraries and librarians.

Uzma Jalaluddin 

Oh my God, hashtag-library-love, I have so much love. And I think so many writers can relate to this, right? Like you become a writer out of a sense of, a love of reading. 

And I think I was a teenager - I must have been 15 or 16 years old - and I heard about Jane Austen. And I was one of those kids that just was like, “I want to read all the classics. I'm really interested. I'm going to try everything. I'm going to try reading Dickens and, you know, the Russian novels and Anna Karenina. And let me try Shakespeare,” and all of this. …

So I picked up Pride and Prejudice, and I read it. And I remember the language was, it felt very old-fashioned to me. And it took me a while to get through it. And I did read it. And then I remember after I - because it takes a while, especially as a teenage girl, for it to sort of pick up ... there was something about that book that just stuck with me. And I kept going back to it and rereading it. And I'm a kid and then I'm a child of the ‘90s. So when the 1995 A&E  special came out, you know, I got the box set. And I would watch it. My mom watched it with me, it was this thing that we both really enjoy doing. 

And I think I've said this before, multiple times: But the books that you read when you're young, especially at those formative ages, the ones that you love, they just stay with you. Those stories just stay with you. And I feel like Jane Austen and specifically Pride and Prejudice - and I did go on further and read all of her novels - have traveled with me throughout my life. And I'm so glad that they have, because … my take on Elizabeth and Darcy came out in Ayesha At Last. And that is a book that has brought me so much joy, sharing with the world, writing it, and all of the things that have come afterwards. It's been truly a privilege.

Plain Jane

I love the way you say that Jane Austen travels with you through life. That is something that really brings people - Jane Austen readers - together too. Because we kind of have fellow travelers traveling with Jane Austen through life when we have this community, which is cool. But I know that from hearing you talk with Janeite communities, and reading some of your interviews as well, that you really see it - correct me if I'm wrong - but you seem to see yourself as a writer first and then the genre romance, the retellings, come second? 

So it seems like you were writing Ayesha At Last, and those characters were kind of taking shape, and the story was taking shape, and you realized, there's an element of Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen in this, which isn't surprising. Can you tell us how you ended up with a retelling?

Uzma Jalaluddin  

My first novel took me a really long time to write. And then it's probably just a function of the fact that I'm a busy person. I'm a high school teacher. I also have two young boys. And when I started writing this book in 2010, I knew that it was going to be a long marathon. And the book wasn't published until 2018. So it took me about seven years for the entire book to kind of take place.

And it wasn't until my fourth or fifth draft, that I gave the book to a friend of mine. And she she pointed out that this has a lot of the elements of Pride and Prejudice. Specifically, she was pointing out the fact that I seem to have a Mr. Darcy character in Khalid, and Elizabeth Bennet character in Ayesha, and a Mr. Wickham character in Tarek, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness, I didn't even see it.”

And that's the ironic thing. I mean, I was writing a book and I was leaning into these tropes, these well-known characters that I love, and I didn't see it. And I made a very deliberate choice. And it was her suggestion, but it was also something that I decided to lean into. I thought, “I'm a completely unknown writer. Here I am sitting in Markham, Ontario, writing this book. No one's heard of me.” I wasn't writing for the Star at this time, either - [I’m a] high school teacher. And on top of that, I'm writing about these unapologetically Muslim characters. Or, as you said, [going] so deep inside of the community that it feels like all I'm talking about are Muslim characters. Who's going to give me a chance? This was like 2014, right? Who's going to give me a chance? Nobody. So let me do something that pays homage to a story that I love, which is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and also turn it and use it for my own devices. Because that story, I think, really resonates with South Asian communities to this day, even though the book itself was written over 200 years ago.

And so that's what I did. I reread - for the dozenth time or more - Pride and Prejudice, and I picked out the pieces that I thought would really translate well, and I went about and I rewrote my book. And it felt like I should have done that from the beginning, because that would have saved me years of drafting. Because that's the book it was trying to be, I just didn't see it.

[T]he books that you read when you're young, especially at those formative ages, the ones that you love, they just stay with you. Those stories just stay with you. And I feel like Jane Austen and specifically Pride and Prejudice - and I did go on further and read all of her novels - have traveled with me throughout my life.

Plain Jane  

Well, it's helpful to have some scaffolding for your imagination to just go wild within … to just kind of hold you together. So that does make sense. And you're saying something really profound here in a way, making me realize that the stories of Jane Austen and the Jane Austen community - not to overstate their influence - can provide access to voices, provide an audience, provide access, and provide a way for diverse voices. You've said something really interesting in the Toronto Star, you talked about the challenge that you felt like was in front of you to get your story. And the story of this family, of these characters in the public eye, and published, and you have written in the Toronto Star that “the lack of diversity in the arts has harmed me in ways I'm only starting to untangle.” Can you tell us a little bit about the lack of diversity in the arts, and how and what a challenge that has been for you?

Uzma Jalaluddin 

When I wrote that piece, in particular, I pitched it to my editor as a way for me to sort of unpack this, and almost have this as a battle cry. It was an encouragement for parents, my fellow parents - who are maybe first-generation immigrants, unlike me, or maybe are like me, second-generation immigrants … they're, you know, so far removed from their home countries - to encourage those children to go into the creative arts. Because I feel like in Asian communities, in particular, there's such a push to have kids really establish themselves. And I'm speaking - forgive me, I'm speaking very generally here, and I am speaking from a Canadian immigrant perspective here as well, it could be different other places - but I feel as an educator, who teaches a lot of Asian students, there's such a push for children to go into traditional professional fields. So to go into the sciences, to go into the STEM fields, the math fields, engineering. And art is not even considered important. 

And yet, art is the basis of culture. And culture is what keeps our society going. And the people who are making the art are very rarely the same ones who represent that same Asian immigrant subset that I'm talking about, or even any marginalized communities.

Things are changing now. But certainly when I was growing up in the ‘90s, and early 2000s, there was very limited representation of immigrants of South Asians, and definitely Muslims. And the types of stereotypes that I was exposed to, as a Muslim woman, were, quite frankly, very toxic. And one of the impacts of that is that … even though I clearly was interested in the creative fields, I've been writing since I was a kid, I've been reading my entire life, I have an aptitude for this and a talent for this. And yet, I never thought that I belonged in this industry, I didn't even know how to go about inserting myself into this industry. Beyond “maybe I should be a journalist” … And instead, I became a high school teacher, because I knew that it's a very stable job. I like people, I like kids. Okay, let me go and do that. 

But - I think I was telling my husband this - I started too late. I started in the creative arts, as an adult, as a mother, all of these responsibilities were already there. And so here I am in the position of juggling, like, five or six different jobs, and having a completely [booked] calendar.

And so I want parents to know that … there are opportunities in the creative fields. There is money to be to be made in this. Yeah, you have to hustle a lot. And it's certainly not an easy place to be. But the impact on culture can be so vast, so important, as well.

I get emails even now from people from people all over the world. I just had a letter from a young woman who lives in France and who said she read my book - unfortunately, Ayesha At Last has not been translated into French - but she read my book in English and she said she has never seen these types of stories represented where you have Muslim characters who are just living their life, who are falling in love, who are having funny adventures, and dealing with some serious things but also some lovely things, and how important it was to her, how much it meant for her to see this type of representation.

And I think what it is, is for so long marginalized communities have been erased. And, like what we were just talking, about the point that you made really beautifully earlier about, the retelling is the way that Jane Austen can be reconfigured to represent different communities … And it's actually been a conversation I think in on Twitter, you know, about all the different diverse retellings? And should they even happen in the first place, which is a different conversation. But, I think …  it comes back to the idea that there was nothing for so long. And I know what it's like to feel like my stories, the things that I think are important, are just never represented on the page or on the screen.

Plain Jane

That's really powerful. It's wonderful to hear. ...  you didn't feel there was a place for you and you forged a place. I feel like that's something that Jane Austen characters are doing. They feel left out of the conversation, marginalized, and they find their way in. … But you say something really powerful here, too: We need to talk about romance. So you mentioned also, to quote you again, in the Toronto Star ... that people of color need more romance. What do you mean by that? And how does this come about, when it comes to that representation, that lack of representation, or that negative representation - and romance?

Uzma Jalaluddin 

I think the definition of romance needs to be expanded. Also, there seems to be a bit of a renaissance happening in the romance community, which I'm completely here for. And you know, in Romancelandia, as it's called online, which is the wider community of romance writers, consumers, creators, etc., there's so many up-to-date conversations that have been happening over the years, and I'm a newcomer to this. I've been a lifelong romance reader, but I've kind of stumbled on this community after I became a writer. And it's been fascinating to watch the types of conversations that are happening about race and identity and retellings and consent and just acceptance and tolerance in this very large genre.

Plain Jane 

Yeah, … you said something else really powerful - that art is important. And as a journalist, I also feel that way. I feel like that's why I feel arts journalism, and humanities journalism, is important. Because … journalism is the first draft of history, right? … But to me, the interesting part, and the the heavy, impactful part of our history is not just what happened, but how we processed what happened, how we reacted to what happened, how communities and how individuals felt about what happened, and what we thought about what happened. And that to me, that's where the arts and humanities journalism is. … And so if you're looking at Arts and Humanities and the stories we tell, there's nothing more important right now. There's nothing more important in the last year and a half than how we process that. And that's why that's one reason I put a a microphone on the Jane Austen discussions, because the Jane Austen discussions involved, you know, Ibi Zoboi, and Uzma Jalaluddin, and so many people, Soniah Kamal, making the stories of Jane Austen relevant to today and adapting them to today. So I think that's not only okay, I think it's what is keeping it alive. And I'm also kind of quoting Damianne Scott here. … She says it very beautifully. She says ... Jane Austen doesn't want to be on a pedestal. She wants to be among the people. 

Uzma Jalaluddin  

That is such a good insight. And I've always felt that, and I think that's why Jane Austen has kind of, as I said, traveled with me all my life …

And I think Jane Austen, for whatever reason - maybe it's because of that sly wit, the satire, the description of regular everyday life, middle class life, really, and, of course, upper class life - is just so relatable. And I love what you're saying about art, I completely agree. And my take on it is that the art that has been made for decades has only ever focused on the white experience. And yet, that has been incomplete. If journalism is the first draft of history, and the art that is made is answering the questions of, how do we feel about this? We haven't been hearing from a very large segment of our population. And if we had been hearing about them, those voices have been oftentimes dismissed. 

[A]rt that has been made for decades has only ever focused on the white experience. And yet, that has been incomplete. If journalism is the first draft of history, and the art that is made is answering the questions of, how do we feel about this? We haven't been hearing from a very large segment of our population. And if we had been hearing about them, those voices have been oftentimes dismissed. 

… Commercial fiction is really where we have these conversations about, what are we obsessed with? What are we interested in? What's the hottest Netflix show? That's where culture is created. Really, [those are] the things that we're kind of thinking about. It's more than a momentary blip, right? It's like the trend in dystopian, the vampire fiction, all of this said something about what we're thinking about as a culture and as a society. And a lot of those stories were written by white authors. And if there are people of color, or if there are Black, indigenous, people of color in those stories, the creators are still largely white authors. And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not a proponent of censorship, or anything like that. But I think we have to recognize that there has been traditionally, and culturally speaking, the effect of this has been an erasure of marginalized voices. And so I feel like things are changing slowly. Very, very slowly. But they are changing. And I'm interested in hearing those voices. And so part of that is romance. What does love look like to bring it back full circle?

Plain Jane

We interrupted ourselves, but there you go. I was gonna bring it back to romance, but I just will say: Muslim romance,

Uzma Jalaluddin  

Yes! Which is something that is very rarely, if ever, explored, unless it is through the prism of culture. … So the main character, it's always the same type of storyline: The main character, if it's a woman, is pressed, has to break away from the bonds of her family, and has to basically give up everything about her culture and herself. And embrace the wider, usually North American, Western type of society in this way. She is freed - there's always kind of a white-savior complex type of storyline, or there is a rejection of her own community. 

I think we have to recognize that there has been traditionally, and culturally speaking, the effect of this has been an erasure of marginalized voices. And so I feel like things are changing slowly. Very, very slowly. But they are changing. And I'm interested in hearing those voices. And so part of that is romance.

But Muslim romance, the thing that I'm interested in, is a little bit more nuanced than that. It can be love that's found with another Muslim person, with another person of color. It can be love that is found with someone who isn't Muslim and … it could be perhaps an LGBTQ exploration of this. I want all of the stories. I think we need to have all of these stories that show that the Muslim experience in North America that was an experience globally is not a monolith. My experience as someone who grew up in the ‘90s and early 2000s, in a more conservative Muslim family, is going to be different than someone who's growing up, you know, even in my neighboring country of the United States.

But the stories that I write, I usually have two South Asian - both my books feature two South Asian or Muslim characters. And their faith is just the background information about them. They're not having conversations necessarily about, Should I be Muslim, or should I not? Should I take off my hijab? Will my father disown me? They come from loving families, they know who they are, and they’re secure in that identity. And the romance really is about other things, you know, and because I write romcoms, they tend to be more situational. 

Plain Jane

I love that. And it's something, as you said, your characters are unapologetically Muslim. And that's really fun to see. … [W]e have to talk about your Darcy character. So your leading man, Khalid … is like Darcy. And he really is like Darcy. But it's funny because … they're both stiff, somewhat formal and awkward, handsome, a little emotionally aloof, for various reasons. But Khalid has a very good reason and it’s better than Darcy's reason: Khalid is part of a traditional Islamic community. And following the rules and interested in the rules. And Darcy's reason, as far as I can tell, is just that he's socially awkward. So in some ways, your Khalid and your “Darcy” has much more of a societal underpinning, stronger underpinning, than Darcy, where you're just kind of left at sea, like Elizabeth, thinking, “What's going on with him?” And then here's Ayesha, who doesn't have that question. She knows exactly what's going on with him. And she's got to work through it. So this is so much fun for, as you say, situational comedy. Can you talk about Khalid as Darcy?

Uzma Jalaluddin  

Khalid is the reason I wrote and I didn't give up on Ayesha At Last. I have to first put that out there, because he is the character that for some reason - this rarely happens for writers - but he just burst into my imagination completely, fully formed. I just knew who he was and knew what he wanted. I just completely understood him. I can't emphasize how rare this is, as someone who's trying to write their third book and I don't know anything about anything right now. It's just very rare. But when I finally … came to the realization that I was writing Pride and Prejudice, late in my drafting, when I finally put that together, that Khalid was Mr. Darcy, it just made so much sense. Because what I'm trying to do through Ayesha At Last is to write a really fun entertaining book that my readers will enjoy. But I'm also trying to engage in a conversation about appearance versus reality. 

So here's this guy. And I think that's what Jane Austen is trying to do as well. And in so many of her books, right? Here is this person who is judged from the moment that you see him because of the way that he dresses, because of the way that he acts, and the assumptions that the reader themselves might have about this type of person. And Darcy is the same way, right? He's an aristocratic man, everyone thinks that he's proud and he's disdainful. That says more about their own insecurities, though. Admittedly, he is quite rude. In the very beginning.

Plain Jane  

Of course, yeah ...

Uzma Jalaluddin   

Classic hero. And Khalid, in his own way, is awkward and bumbling and rude. But on top of the regular social awkwardness of a classic, romantic hero, we have that layer of his Muslim-ness. And his Muslim-ness comes out in very overt symbols that make the people surrounding him very uncomfortable, because he is really comfortable in the way that he embraces his faith. I purposely made him almost like a cartoonish Muslim guy. Like he was wearing a long white robe to work and a skullcap, he had an unkempt beard. And I did all this on purpose. I made him an extra on homeland. And yet I decided to put it in my book, because I wanted to throw this in my reader’s face - and the Muslims and the non-Muslim readers: This is this is your villain. This is the guy that you've been trained to be afraid of. Look at how hot he is. Look at how sexy he is. Look at how romantic he is.

Plain Jane

I will make you fall in love!

Uzma Jalaluddin 

Exactly, exactly. And in that way, I had a lot of fun deconstructing the Muslim man archetype. Because I live with Muslim men. I’m raising two Muslim men. I've been married to a Muslim man for nearly 20 years (he refuses to grow a beard, I keep trying to get him to grow one. He's not interested!) I have a brother, I have a loving father. I have uncles. And I never saw the men that I interact with on a daily basis, who were Muslim, really adequately represented in the wholeness of their person and their humanity. And I wanted to correct that. ...

Plain Jane

When it comes to Muslim romance, you have some interesting developments in Ayesha At Last. One thing that's interesting is that - I don't know if you would call her a white character, Caucasian character, if that's what she is - Clara? Her boyfriend Rob is super sluggish about proposing and he can't get his act together and Khalid, our hero, helps Clara negotiate a proposal and a dowry? And I don't know what you were wanting readers to get from this, if anything, but it had me wondering whether ... there are some things in traditional Muslim cultures and religious cultures that you think are helpful to women? That seemed to be what was being depicted. And if that is something that's probably worth unpacking -  that complicated aspect of rituals, and the rituals that we all embark on, whether we like it or not. They're in our culture.

Uzma Jalaluddin 

Yeah, I never thought of it that way. I, to be honest, I just thought it would be really funny to have the girl get a rishta from her boyfriend, who she's been living with for five years. And the guy who sends her the rishta is this bearded Muslim man. I-  just in my head, right? Because I have to keep going! - and these jokes just keep me going. 

I did all this on purpose. I made him an extra on homeland. And yet I decided to put it in my book, because I wanted to throw this in my reader’s face - and the Muslims and the non-Muslim readers: This is this is your villain. This is the guy that you've been trained to be afraid of. Look at how hot he is. Look at how sexy he is. Look at how romantic he is.

But I think there's a lot of merit in what you said. Yeah, of course, cultures can learn from each other and gain certain positives and negatives. As much as I've learned, you know, from from my wider Western upbringing in Canada  -  I'm just as Canadian as I am South Asian, as I am Muslim, right? 

There's so much about all of these cultures that I've learned from, and hopefully other people can pick up from this. 

And really what Khalid is exhorting Rob to do is, say, “Why aren't you having this conversation? It's very obvious that Clara has been trying to hint to you for a very long time, why aren't you picking up the hand? It's time to, you know, figure this out, you're going to lose her. And if that is the consequence for your inattention that's on you. But here, let's just, let's just be completely upfront about this.” 

And I think this is someone who is very direct, I really appreciate this about South Asian marital practices. And I have to point out that the rishta process is South Asian, it's not really a Muslim thing. Okay, other cultures who are Muslim, they might have like a different marital custom. But it's a very South Asian practice, rishta, which is a proposal, like an arranged-marriage proposal. I really appreciate the directness of it. There's always a goal. It's like, we're not just casually dating. We're dating because we want to know if we can build a life together. And if that life together involves marriage, because that's what you want to do, that's fine. But, like, this isn't just for seeing each other, and let's see where this goes. No, no, there's none of that: There's a deadline within a certain amount of time. You’ve got to figure this out. 

And ... that's what Khalid brings to the table here. 

Plain Jane 

Rob will never change. That's the way Rob is always going to be - somebody’s always gonna have to be strong and basically put it on the table. 

[O]ne thing that I had in my notes Uzma … that kind of made me laugh when I looked back and saw this in my notes, was, “We need to be talking more about Khadija.” You mentioned the wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Can you tell us about her and why she has an appearance in Ayesha At Last?

Uzma Jalaluddin  

Growing up I went to Sunday school, and you know, all of the type of stories that you learn, you know, like I'm sure Christian children are taught Bible stories, and Muslim kids are taught Muslim stories. So one of the stories that we're always told is that Prophet Muhammad was married to his first wife - because she died, and he later remarried - was a woman named Khadija, and she really liked Muhammad, peace be upon him. She really liked him, so much that she proposed marriage to him. And she was 15 years older than him. And actually, he was one of the traders that she hired. So he was actually working for her at the time. But she was really impressed by his honesty and his trustworthiness and his authenticity. And so, as you do, she was just straight up and said, “I'm interested in you. Are you interested in me? Let's get married.” And he accepted. 

And, you know, the traditional story was that he was extremely happy with his wife, even though he was 25, and she was 40. They were married for 15 years before she died. .. [W]hen he received revelation from God, as the traditional mythology goes, she was the first person who accepted Islam, the first person who supported him and believed him, and was his partner in all things - an equal partner, and in fact a more successful partner because she was the one who was the hard-headed businesswoman, who was kind of running things. 

And I just thought this story is not well known, I don't think, by a lot of people who aren't familiar with the Muslim faith. And it just goes to show you that there's so much emphasis on the darkness of the way that Muslims are portrayed around the world, that there's no room for these lighthearted stories. 

And that's really what I wanted to get across in Ayesha At Last. Muslims can fall in love too. We need our romance stories, need our love stories, just as much as any other community. Maybe even more, because we've had so much darkness heaped on us by the actions of some people who have done extremely violent things. But also [by the] decisions of other people who have portrayed Muslims, over and over again, as violent extremists.

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Thank you for being here, Austen Connection friends.

Let us know: Are you a reader of romance, Muslim romance, and retellings? What are your favorites? Did this conversation inspire you to think differently about contemporary romance, romcoms, and the stories we tell, and what it all has to do with Jane Austen? Have you read Ayesha At Last and/or Hana Khan Carries On? And/or, what are your recommendations for the Thanksgiving holiday, if that’s a thing where you live? And if not, let us know your weekend reading plans? Comment below!

As always, you can find us right here, on Twitter at @AustenConnect, and on Facebook and Insta at @austenconnection.

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Meanwhile, have a beautiful weekend.

Wishing you all the light, joy, and romance,

Plain Jane

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