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Reverberations of Underground Activism: Clandestine Occupations reviewed on Truthout

(Photo: Glen DeWitt)The underground is an elaborate metaphor for the many subterranean ways of living, thinking and feeling that percolate our movements. (Photo: Glen DeWitt)

By Dan Berger
October 14th, 2015

Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History, Diana Block, PM Press, 2015

Changing the world is hard. Activism contains so many unknowns, and so many difficult decisions with impacts we might guess but can only know in retrospect. The combination of urgency and despair, strategy and principle, has fueled many efforts at radical transformation. Ultimately, we give it our best shot and hope that it makes a difference. One of the hardest things, then, is learning to live with loss. How do we keep fighting after something - an approach, an organization - we poured our hearts into has fallen apart? How do we act reflexively and across political generations or perspectives?

These are difficult questions. But in the absence of the dramatic social change we pursue, grappling with such problems trumps giving in to apathy or rejecting the need for change. It is, in fact, an opportunity to live a political life committed enough to grapple with these issues. Radicals of all stripes ought to confront and reflect upon these issues. But they continue to circulate around those who have gone underground.

The underground is an elaborate metaphor for the many subterranean ways of living, thinking and feeling that percolate our movements.

Of all such strategies, perhaps no decision is as fraught - as controversial and yet, as I have explored elsewhere, misunderstood - as the one to go underground. It has been taken up in novels, memoirs, history books, plays, documentaries and Hollywood cinema. Part of the fascination may lie in the fact that an underground is hard to imagine in these days of permanent surveillance and social media overexposure. Yet the best of these cultural texts show that the underground is an elaborate metaphor for the many subterranean ways of living, thinking and feeling that percolate our movements.

Certainly that is how writer and activist Diana Block conceptualizes the underground in her new novel. Clandestine Occupations is a nuanced and intimate portrayal of radical activism's far-reaching consequences. The book takes place across four decades and six narrators, each one relating to a revolutionary named Luba Gold. Each chapter is told through a different narrator. We meet Luba in 1986 through the eyes of Belinda, her coworker. We follow her through Joan, a friend who ultimately betrays her to the FBI; Sage, a former friend distanced by the intensity of their radical group; Maggie, who meets Luba in 2007 when they both support the parole attempt of someone in prison; and Anise, the daughter of Sage and a budding young activist. Luba herself has the last word as she narrates the last chapter, set in 2020 when a new underground is on the rise.

Clandestine Occupations is in some ways a sequel to Block's beautiful 2009 memoir, Arm the Spirit. More accurately, it is a retelling. Both books find the protagonist plotting to free a Puerto Rican political prisoner, fleeing an FBI sting in Los Angeles with an infant in tow, living underground for 10 years in Pittsburgh and returning to public activism in San Francisco. After returning from living underground Gold, like Block, cofounds an organization focused on supporting and freeing women in prison (Unshackled Women in the book, California Coalition for Women Prisoners in real life).

Other characters mirror real people as well. Cassandra, a political prisoner caught up in the sting Luba narrowly escaped and who was unexpectedly placed in isolation after the 9/11 attacks, bears many resemblances to Marilyn Buck, a white ally to the Black Liberation Army who spent more than 25 years in prison - including being held incommunicado after 9/11 - and who died three weeks after being granted compassionate release. (The same fate befalls Cassandra, too.)

Another political prisoner central to the book's story arc is Rahim, a former Black Panther who is reconnected with many of his California comrades when he is sent across the country to stand trial on a specious 30-year-old case. He resembles Jalil Muntaqim, also a former Black Panther who has served more than 40 years in prison and was one of eight Black Panthers charged in 2007 with the 1971 death of a San Francisco police officer. One suspects that other characters in the book are also drawn from people in Block's experience. The book's subtitle rings true when it proclaims itself "an imaginary history." A series of real-life events, from the 1970 Venceremos Brigade trips to Cuba to today's Black Lives Matter movement, propel the book's story arc.

Block casts parenthood and revolutionary commitment in a global context rare for many American discussions of child-raising.

While both books share the same scaffolding, they are different texts. Arm the Spirit traced Block's evolution as an activist into anti-imperialist feminism, her work against state repression and sexual violence, her decision to go underground in support of the Puerto Rican independence movement while parenting a newborn and her rebuilding of a public activist life upon returning from the underground. It is a tender and vivid book, simultaneously chronicling a previously unexplored aspect of recent left-wing history and voicing the complexity of finding oneself doing two very difficult things at the same time, living underground and raising a child (ultimately, two children). In Arm the Spirit, Block renders her decision to be a parent alongside her decision to go underground in a compelling, humane fashion. She noted that revolutionaries around the world become parents in difficult circumstances, including more difficult ones than hers. She casts both parenthood and revolutionary commitment in a global context rare for many American discussions of child-raising.

Clandestine Occupations incorporates parenthood into clandestinity - Luba also decides to have a child around the time of going underground. But the book's greatest success is in its powerful rendering of the commitments and fragilities of this interconnected group of radicals and associates. In fact, many of the most sensitive portraits are of people leaving the radical left, at least in terms of everyday activism: Joan betrays the underground at the suggestion of her creepy boyfriend, who later turns out to be an FBI informant. Sage chooses her personal relationships over her political activism, especially after the rigidity of the "Uprising" organization (modeled loosely after the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, of which Block was a member in the late 1970s) leaves her few options.

The book beautifully, painfully illustrates the dangers of dogma and ego. It also shows the severity of clandestine politics. Whereas Arm the Spirit chronicled Block's journey underground, Clandestine Occupations takes up subterranean politics from the perspectives of those left behind. It is a powerful way to tell the story of the underground, depicting the pain of not being able to account for one's comrades and loved ones. It puts the emphasis on social relationships rather than spy-movie tricks. And the resulting picture is complicated. Belinda is Luba's coworker, a fairly apolitical and lesbian (largely closeted - her own clandestine operation) nurse, who the FBI tries to pressure into cooperation once Luba flees. She resists the FBI and finds a bit of political independence in her courage. Sage, meanwhile, is isolated from her work after she decides not to go underground and has told her daughter little about her past. Sage's reluctance to share information about her past distances her from her daughter, who has to find her own way in the world. Anise's search for discovery and political purpose leads her to visit political prisoners, participate in Occupy Wall Street and take part in an underground adventure of her own.

Telling the story of the underground through other people's experience of it - including Luba, who meditates on the rise of a new, more tech-based underground in the year 2020 - is a compelling approach. It gets at what is compellingly vexing about clandestinity: It is elliptical, unknown, simultaneously enticing and elusive. That holds equally true for the clandestine space that some radicals find themselves in: prison. Block captures the emotional range of visiting or corresponding with prisoners, the running dialogue between hope and despair, as well as the pathos of supporting people through decades of confinement. "This much I remembered - prison visits cooked emotions until they threatened to boil over in a sizzling, uncontrollable mess," Sage confides of her experience visiting Rahim in prison after more than two decades of silence.

Clandestine Occupations has its own elusions. It is not clear, for instance, why Luba's group wanted to break that specific (unnamed) woman out of prison, or what she would do once freed. The purpose of going underground and its possible connection to aboveground activism is not well explored here. Block also utilizes some jargon of the far left - for instance, she refers to politically motivated bank robberies as "expropriations" - and does not provide much background of the social movements involved. The uninitiated reader may stumble over some of the references or miss the nuances at times assumed here.

Still, Clandestine Occupations provides a powerful, deliberately fragmented glimpse into political commitment and accountability. There are some lovely passages here about retaining commitment while aging. There are the small-scale recognitions of the struggle continuing, such as when Luba and Sage run into each other at a 2003 demonstration against the Iraq war, "glad ... to be on the streets together again, now with our children, bracing for the slaughter to come."

The most powerful examples concern deep personal and political reckoning. Joan, who betrays Luba at the behest of her FBI-informant boyfriend, is a sympathetic figure troubled by her decision from decades earlier. She writes a letter to apologize for her betrayals, which seems to provide a shaky comfort to some of the book's characters. One wishes that Block, a strong and evocative writer, had included the text of Joan's letter, not only because of its impact on the characters but to see Block's imagination of how - especially in the context of growing state surveillance - fractured political bonds could be rebuilt through honest, vulnerable dialogue.

Betrayed by Joan, Luba and Cassandra also need to reckon with their own egotism in the context of intergenerational activism. Each woman grapples with Anise's youthful intemperance and sense of urgency. Luba finds herself shocked at Anise's decision to go underground as part of a hacker-led effort to stifle electronic surveillance in Palestine and the United States, in an effort that sparks the "Urban Maroon" movement to shield formerly incarcerated people from state violence. It is a satisfying end, to show that state violence will continue to generate clandestine forms of organization, even as they shift from one generation to the next.

Ultimately, Clandestine Occupations is a poignant reminder of the reverberations of radical activism. In a revealing passage, Luba writes of the collective responsibility all must bear in social movements. "We had been so full of our righteous rage, our correct political convictions, our determination to push ourselves and others to the limits of militancy that we excluded those who wanted a different role," she writes. "We failed to see how our harshness, our superior standards, our cliquishness could drive people into the arms of our enemies." Luba's self-reflection comes in 2020, after decades of organizing and intense political commitment. It is a warning borne of experience, from the future as much as the past, to build movements that are uncompromising in their vision but capacious in their empathy.

Buy Clandestine Occupations | Buy Clandestine Occupations e-Book | Back to Diana Block's Author Page

Waging Peace in Peace News

By Henrietta Cullinan
Peace News
October 2015- November 2015

The front cover of this book – a portrait of the author holding an iris in both hands whilst hemmed in by riot police – shows a kind, thoughtful-looking man, who one can well imagine meeting on a peaceful protest here in Britain. However, this image belies the book’s central message: if I believe that my life is no more important than anyone else’s, then I need to be prepared to put my own life in danger.

Several examples are provided by the ‘spiritual giants’ the author has met during his life as a committed peace worker. Thus Hartsough recalls a summer of organising with Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran who, during protests in California, lay on the railway line in front of a train carrying munitions bound for Central America. Horrifically, the train did not stop and rolled over his body, inflicting life-threatening injuries. Willson had stated: ‘We are not worth more. They are not worth less’.

In another example, this time from Mexico, Hartsough accompanies a priest back to his village which has been occupied by the military. Padre Joel says: ‘My life is life only if I am willing to hand it over.’

Hartsough voices the hope that he too can show this courage, later quoting an even harsher judgement by Daniel Berrigan: ‘We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price.’

During the course of the book, we learn about the author’s own part in daring protests, such as the 1972 ‘People’s Blockade’ that attempted to obstruct the passage of the Vietnam-bound USS Nitro with a fleet of canoes. There are also powerful first-hand accounts of nonviolent direct action taken by groups under threat in places including Central America and the Philippines. And Hartsough also records being present at a number of remarkable historical events. For example, in Russia, when the people encircled the ‘White House’ to protect their democratically-elected government from a military coup.

I greatly appreciated reading the author’s accounts of the peace delegations he has led to conflict zones all over the world. The delegates were not always welcomed, and sometimes their lives, and the lives of the groups they visited, were threatened. But I also found encouraging the importance he gives to the smaller kinds of actions that one might think make hardly any difference.

For example, Hartsough stresses the importance of enabling the old and frail to protest, and recalls accompanying his own parents, even to the point of being arrested with them. These well-told stories will help motivate contemporary peace activists – especially since even now, at 74, Hartsough himself keeps up the pace, protesting at drone bases.

Incorporating some of the author’s own sentencing statements, some practical methods for action planning, and his ‘Ten Lessons’ of peacemaking, this book is a valuable resource as well as a radical and powerful testament to the effectiveness of committed nonviolent peace work.

Buy Waging Peace | Buy Waging Peace e-Book | Back to David Hartsough's Author Page

Mango & Mint in Cubesville 18: Roots and Influences

Cubesville 18: Roots and Influences
Fall 2015
Page 28-29


Roots and Influences: Convergent Evolution

Nicky Garratt was the original guitarist with the UK Subs, playing on their first five albums in their most successful period. Long before I was vegan, the UK Subs were a great influence on my musical taste, and those albums still strike a chord with me. How fitting then that some years later Nicky should produce a vegan cookbook that got me poring over the shelves of the local Asian superstores for new ingredients and really stoked my passion for food.

With a heart full of inspiration, we caught up with him to get his philosophy on why he chose traditional Arab, Indian and North African cuisine for a collection of animal-free cooking. “I do respect regional cuisines,” he says. “I don’t think you should just throw out hundreds of years of tastes and appearance; you shouldn’t eat just tofu!”

Mango & Mint is a totally diverse range of recipes, which Nicky intersperses with ancedotes and reminiscences, sometimes drawing from his experiences with punk; featuring articles such as “Thanks for Giving me What I didn’t Want”, “eaters Without Borders” and “Jersey Krishna”.

But Nicky’s vegetariansims began well before his involvement with punk. “For people who know me through bands, I’ve included a lot of other sugg in the book,” he says. “It makes me less anonymous. Punk came along, and I got really interested in it, but I had a life before that - I’d been in bands since 1970 and I didn’t throw out my records. When people interviewed me about what bands I liked, they expected the Sex Pistols or Clash, but I was saying Magma and Soft Machine.”

Nicky says his inspiration for documenting these recipes was the substandard food he received as a vegetarian touring different countries with the UK Subs. When the best you can hope for is steamed vegetables or tofus, food becomes an obsession on the road. And the UK Subs were the first western punk band to tour Poland- early 1980s Eastern Bloc wasn’t a haven for vegetarians. Neither was the UK.

Mango & Mint contains hundreds of recipes, which Nicky confesses he has made individually, and with a breath-taking attention to detail - a staple like hummus, for example, involves retaining nine chickpeas for garnish on the intersections of a 3x3 grind of paprika. Wow.

And Mango & Mint is certainly not short of breadth - choose from desserts such as coconut halva, orange sesame candy or a smile nut brittle. Pickles and chutneys feature 21 recipes made from scratch, while main course range from chana masala to North African pasta, taking in the virus of Egyptian broad beans on the way. Nicky even gives a master class on how to make your own pita breads and pooris- something those of us who live in cosmopolitan areas with goof grocers wouldn’t have high on our priorities.

Nicky says the key to compassionate diet is to eat a broad range of different food, which usurps the traditional British focus on meat. “ In my book I wrote about the kill being at the centre of the table,” he says. “A buffet allows the most compassionate way of eating.”

He adds that he wouldn’t class himself as “vegan”, in the same way he wouldn’t class a person skeptical of god as an atheist. He does, however, maintain honesty and compassion. “The dark secret in humanity can be seen as one of betrayal,” he says. “Free range is seen as compassionate, but it’s a dreadful thing to do- to pretend to be an advocate for an animal and betray it. In a way it almost seems better to have a factory farm - it’s less of a betrayal. Of course I don’t agree with factory farms, but it is a more honest approach.”

In #15 we interviewed Isa Chandra Moskowitz, who came from the Brooklyn punk scene and revolutionized vegan cooking with recipes and techniques that completely surpassed non-vegan contemporaries. Nicky’s book has a similar strength; it is unapologetically vegan, neither trying to mimic non-vegan ingredients, nor draw non-vegans into the folks. And why should it? With a passion for excellence and a culinary philosophy inspired by diversity, Mango & Mint draws from traditional Eastern and North African recipes to open new doors in vegan cooking.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to the Author's page

The Story of Crass on PunkNews.Org

By Tom Sawyer
September 2nd, 2015

The Story of Crass is George Berger's biography of one of the first anarcho-punk bands, Crass. Formed by Steve Ignorant and Penny Rimbaud in the late 70's, Crass functioned as an anarchist collective operating from a commune in the English countryside known as Dial House. The band released six full length albums varying widely in style but consistently featuring an intense and trenchant take on politics, art, gender, and music. Fiercely independent, Crass were among the first bands to self release their records, eschew advertising, and function almost entirely autonomous of the traditional music industry system. Berger writes clearly and directly, and paints an honest portrait of one of punk's pioneering groups.

One of the best parts about the book is the very beginning. Berger goes far into Penny Rimbaud's history, tracing his childhood and education at art school to his first interest in politics into his first experiments with improvised music and later punk music. Berger does the same with other members of the band, mostly Gee Vaucher, but Steve Ignorant and Eve Libertine are included to a somewhat lesser extent.

The book features in depth interviews with members of the band, although at times it seems to focus more on Ignorant and Rimbaud than it does on the rest of the band. But to Berger's credit, the interviews are extremely well conducted and give a lot of information not easily found on the internet or in the liner notes of the "Crassical Collection" re-releases. A good majority of the book is very well researched and is written from the perspective of someone who lived through a lot of the story with the band. The first hand accounts of certain events (like the Stonehenge festivals) can be nice but there are times that the book seems to devolve into Berger trying to relive his glory days coming up in the punk scene, falling into personal anecdotes about various shows or protests or squats that have little if anything to do with the topic at hand.

At times the insight into the Crass' actual music is lacking. The book sometimes feels like, "Here's a lot of wild stuff that went down and then they put out Penis Envy! Now here’s some more stuff that happened." The political and personal lives of the band are just as valid as the rest, but it would've been great to have a real document exploring the musical process behind the albums. And for that matter, at times Berger seems inappropriately critical of Crass. A good writer can report from a critical position but Berger is often too heavy handed about it. "Christ - The Album" is given far more attention than any other album in the book and is preceded by him telling us that this is his favorite album and he thinks they should've stopped afterwards. Subsequently, "Yes Sir I Will" and "Ten Notes On A Summer's Day" get very little attention and are treated more as footnotes than proper releases. Sometimes you have to wonder how much Berger actually likes Crass. On well more than one occasion he tells the reader that he much preferred Poison Girls to Crass - leading us to ask, “ Then why aren't you writing about Poison Girls?”

The Story of Crass also seems to fall into a trap many other music biographies are familiar with. Clearly written chronologically, the beginning of the book is meticulously researched and well structured. But as the book continues the chapters get shorter and less informed (reminding me of the lackluster Fugazi chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life), perhaps in part to the author's oft-admitted contempt for the last two Crass albums.

Berger sometimes assumes a little too much knowledge on the part of the reader. He discusses the musical content very little, operating under the belief that the reader knows each record as intimately as he does. And he entirely forgets to explain until the end of the book why Crass records were inscribed with the "_21984" depending on the year of release, despite referencing it throughout its entirety.

But for all the books shortcomings, Berger does a fantastic job of placing the band in the proper musical, social, and political contexts, a feat most other punk histories frankly fall more than flat on. In The Story of Crass, Berger intricately discusses the aftermath of World War II and its influence on the beginning of punk rock, and the later effects of Margaret Thatcher’s rule and her war in the Falklands and how it all relates to the contemporary music scene as a whole as well as Crass.

Although the book is very well researched and gives a lot of insight into one of punk's most mysterious and misunderstood groups, it also has it's fair share of shortcomings. However, it does come highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of anarcho-punk music or punk music as a whole, but it should be supplemented with a book like The Day The Country Died or the essays in the Crassical Collection reissues.

Buy book now | Buy e-Book now | Back to the Author's page

Kuper Returns To Oaxaca With "Ruins"

By Michael C Lorah
Comic Book Resources
August 27th, 2015

Fans of cartoonist Peter Kuper have likely noticed the recurring importance of the Mexican city Oaxaca in his recent work. After living there for two years, Kuper documented his experiences with a sketchbook of drawings called "Diario de Oaxaca" that was published by PM Press in 2009, and he later revisited his time in Mexico in the pages of "World War 3 Illustrated," the leftist political comic book magazine that Kuper cofounded in 1979.

This September, Kuper, with publisher SelfMadeHero in tow, returns to Oaxaca with a new work of fiction titled "Ruins." Weaving together a variety of characters whose lives are thematically tied to the title, Kuper tracks the struggling relationship of Samantha, a teacher taking leave to work on her book, and the recently unemployed George. The duo travels from New York to Oaxaca and visits the ancient Mayan ruins where they see the violent teachers' strike of 2006. Similarly, a Monarch butterfly travels the route and witnesses the embattled situation of migrant workers and the worsening quality of the environment.

CBR News talked with Kuper about the themes of decay and rebirth in "Ruins," the lasting impact of Oaxaca on the cartoonist's work and the variety of projects that keeps him busy (hint: they involve teaching at an Ivy League university and drawing the continuing adventures of the most beloved cold war satire combatants of all time).

CBR News: "Ruins" has a few meanings in this book, like the remnants of ancient civilizations that surround Oaxaca and George and Samantha's foundering relationship. Also, the Monarch butterfly's route passes some troubling touchstones in the modern world and the teachers of Oaxaca face ruination. When did all these themes start to coalesce into a single book for you?

Peter Kuper: My first notes for this began in 2007 while I was still living in Oaxaca. We lived there for two years [2006-2008]. I didn't know exactly how the book would roll out -- I originally thought I'd make it autobiographical, but it moved into areas that suggested it would work better as fiction.

I wanted the characters right in the middle of events, including a teachers' strike that happened while we were down there, and as fiction I could do this. We had visited the Monarch sanctuary and I knew I also wanted that to be a big part of the story. I'm a closet entomologist and this was an opportunity to draw all kinds of insects. Given the state of the environment, I knew that would be an important aspect of the book too. To work on a project like this, I needed it to reflect a range of subjects that interest and concern me in order to have sustain throughout the time it would take to create.

Peter Kuper's "Diario de Oaxaca"

The idea percolated for a year or so and I realized it would be an enormous undertaking. I actually wasn't sure I had it in me, and since it was an oddball project -- and after the 2008 crash -- it was hard to find a publisher. It wasn't until 2011 that I finally could make the time to sit down and sketch it all out. I sent the rough form out to a number of publishers, but it didn't fit an obvious niche and for a while I had no takers. I decided to do it anyway and started drawing the first few pages. That same week, SelfMadeHero in England got back to me. I also found publishers in France and Mexico. Still, it took me three years to complete with nose to the drawing table for the last nine months.

Samantha's taken leave to focus on her book, but her desire to have a child seems to be the real driving motive here -- which is an awkward fit given her tension with George. Her book suggests that she's trying to fill a specific void in her life with a guy who isn't right for that role, doesn't it?

Without giving too much away, Samantha is reaching an age where having a child has begun to loom larger than perhaps it did before. Her writing a book is another form of giving birth, and that creation is also fraught. Working on it has stirred up her past, which ripples into her present. She is becoming aware that her biological clock is nearing midnight, so there's a new urgency. Like lots of couples, the question of having kids isn't necessarily all resolved when they get together. The visit to Mexico she hopes might nudge George in a new direction, including parenthood. She won't be the first person to have trouble getting what she needs from a relationship, but holds out the hope it can be made to work.

"Ruins" interior art by Peter Kuper.

United States journalist Brad Will's death became a major international flashpoint in the 2006 Oaxacan teacher's strike, and one of your characters is a reflection of that tragedy. How did you balance the factual elements of the strike against the dramatic needs of your fiction? Did you feel beholden to certain truths?

The character of Al is based in part on a photojournalist named Tony Turok, whom I met and became friends with in Oaxaca. He was -- and is -- a brilliant photographer who went into a number of war zones and captured incredible images from places like El Salvador and Chiapas. Like Brad Will, he was downtown when the shooting started. I never crossed paths with Brad Will, though I discovered that many of my friends in New York had known him well. Brad had actually created a short piece for "World War 3 Illustrated" on an issue I hadn't edited, but I didn't put his name together with the printed piece until afterwards. I didn't want to feel beholden to the strictly factual events, which was one of the reasons I chose to make "Ruins" fiction. Nonetheless I based my story on many things that actually took place.

There's also a thread in the book about a Monarch butterfly traveling from New York to Oaxaca. Along the way, the butterfly witnesses some of life's harsher realities; does this story element also symbolize the emerging from darkness into a more beautiful, freer life -- which is something George, Samantha and the residents of Oaxaca are all grasping for?

The metaphors that presented themselves, between human struggles and those of the insect world, were almost too cliché to use -- though that didn't stop me! I hope I wasn't ham-fisted in presenting the contrast and comparisons between the Monarch and the various human circumstances I portrayed. It'll be up to the readers to decide. I felt like I was sticking to certain truths in showing the natural world in great distress given all the destruction to the habitats of humans and Monarchs alike. I also based many aspects on personal experience during my time in Oaxaca; trouble with scorpions and politicians abound there! Yet as doomy and gloomy as I tend to get, there are just too many examples of life persevering, or just plain beauty in the world, that I had to also present in order to paint a full portrait.

Your art style has evolved a lot over the years. In "Ruins," you work in monochrome and in color. What techniques and tools did you use?

Living in Mexico had a huge impact on my art. I spent tons of time drawing in my sketchbook, drawing from life there. When I returned to the States I had trouble picking up where I left off with iconic stencil and spray paint illustrations. I wanted to bring the palette and looseness I had in my sketchbook into my comics. I wanted to portray the visual experience I had going from a grey New York City to a very colorful Mexican setting and moving from monochrome to full color was one way to demonstrate this sensation.

"Ruins" also tracks the journey of a monarch butterfly from New York to Oaxaca.

I find in general I get restless if I work in one style or approach too long. I'm always experimenting in my sketchbook, sometime drawing more realistically sometimes cartoonier. Whatever serves the subject and my mood. I wanted the freedom to move between styles and tried to keep the parameters as wide as possible in "Ruins." Even in the design of the characters, I wanted to range from more realistic features to very rubbery and cartoony faces without sacrificing believability. Some backgrounds are very realistic while some are more impressionistic.

I worked in pen and ink, watercolor and colored pencils for the part of the story with characters in Oaxaca. For the alternating chapters following the migration of the Monarch butterfly, I used pen and ink; then I did the coloring in Photoshop. The Monarch sections are also wordless, which is kind of a breather from the chapters that are fairly text heavy.

Kuper & Tobocman Celebrate "World War 3 Illustrated"

I also played with the word balloons and color-coded the text so that when someone speaks Spanish the text is green, versus black for English. I liked the idea of conveying different languages without using the traditional > symbol. I also played with coloring the word balloons themselves and varying the shape of the word balloons to reflect each character's personality and tone of voice. Not that that is original to me, but it isn't used or considered very often in comics. It is especially handy when people are inside a building and you can identify who's talking based solely on their speech balloons.

Yet I hope all of this fancy footwork is just background for the reader and only makes the visual experience flow more smoothly and clearer.

This is your longest graphic novel to date, which is an accomplishment given everything on your calendar.

Yes, longest by a good stretch. I looked at my contract the other day and noticed it said I would deliver a 224-page book. It ended up being 328.

You're still teaching at SVA, correct? And now you've added a course at Harvard? How's that commute?

I really enjoy teaching and have continued at The School of Visual Arts in NYC now for about 25 years, though I've cut it back to one class and one semester. Harvard has been amazing and that makes the five-hour commute worthwhile. I love train travel anyway and it is a good time to catch up on reading and answering interview questions! I'm just starting my third year at Harvard and the students there are really a rewarding bunch each semester. It is really fulfilling to talk about approaches and make suggestions that are evident in the work the following week. I also get students from a wide range of disciplines -- economic majors, English and medieval studies majors, which makes for a greater diversity in the subjects they tackle. Also coming into contact with the other professors is brilliant.

"Ruins" interior art by Peter Kuper.

And you still turn out "Spy vs. Spy" for "MAD", and your editorial work and contributions continue in "World War 3 Illustrated."

Yes on all counts. I co-edited and designed a huge hardcover collection of "World War 3" covering that 35 year history that PM Press published last year -- available at finer left-wing book stores everywhere and, of course, through the Amazon conglomerate beast. "WW3" is also still coming out as an annual magazine we self-publish and distribute through Top Shelf. I edited the last issue of the magazine with Scott Cunningham and the next one edited by a different set of editors should be out by the time you read this.

It doesn't seem like you have time for anything else, but what else is on your drawing table these days.

I do periodic illustrations; one recent one was for an "art inspired by 'Mad Max'" book that Vertigo published and various shorter comics for books like "Masterful Marks" -- I did Harvey Kurtzman's bio and will do another famous cartoonist bio for the next book -- and I adapted a WWI poem for a collection, "Above the Dreamless Dead." I'm art directing a weekly political illustration page for the French paper "Liberation" and am doing a full-page comic for "Le Monde," another French paper.

Over several years l worked on animation for a documentary called "Containment" about the impossible task of storing nuclear waste for the next 10,000 plus years. It was done by two Harvard professors, Robb Moss and Peter Galison, and should be available shortly. I had the fun job of animating -- not CGI or full animation, just enough images to give the art movement -- a series of sci-fi scenarios that a group of futurists, hired by the U.S. government, came up with. They tried to imagine how the waste disposal site in New Mexico might be breached and what ways present humans could warn future human not to dig the toxic waste up. I got to draw robots and spaceships and futuristic (for me, that all looks like the 1950's vision) drilling machines and trains.

So it was a real joy until I thought about the fact that in virtually all the scenarios we dig, and we die. Somehow my work just keeps illustrating our troubles, but I'm smiling where I can.

"Ruins" will be released on September 22.
"Ruins" interior art by Peter Kuper.

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Ken Wishnia: Putting on The Editor’s Hat on Trace Evidence

By Ken Wishnia
Trace Evidence
September 19th, 2015

Or, damn, you people are making me work!

I’m supposed to be a writer, not an editor. I’ve published six novels and a bunch of short stories in various anthologies, but Jewish Noir (PM Press) is the first time I’ve ever proposed, assembled and edited an anthology by myself. I had been warned, by none other than Reed Farrel Coleman, that editing an anthology is a lot of work, but I had no idea that it would be quite so much work. Also, the publisher’s contract should have come with a label saying, Warning: You Will Lose Friends—if you do the job right.

But first, the fun stuff. It was a real treat to be able to work closely with such luminaries as Marge Piercy, Harlan Ellison, S.J. Rozan, David Liss, Wendy Hornsby, Jason Starr and Eddie Muller, among others. I had to do a lot of back-and-forth emailing with the contributors, including some face-to-face discussions and sitdowns with authors to go through their manuscripts page by page.

And thanks to our generous “You don’t have to be Jewish to write Jewish Noir” policy, I also got to collaborate with writers like Canadian author Melissa Yi, who was a joy to work with. She sent me two stories for consideration, and I ended up replying with a carefully worded email explaining that I liked the first half of the first story and the second half of the second story, and asked if she would be willing to combine the two stories along these lines to create a totally new story. That’s asking a lot, but not only was she willing to do it, after revising the two stories into one, she ended up adding a new section that gave her story “Blood Diamonds” a crack-of-the-whip sting of an ending that will linger in your mind for long after you’ve read it.

All this from a definite non-Jew, you should know.

But I have to say that some of the non-Jewish authors’ attempts at capturing Jewish culture made me laugh out loud. One author had a family dinner featuring matzoh ball soup, latkes and potato kugel. This may not seem like much to some readers, but I don’t know any Jewish cooks who would ever make all three of these dishes at the same time, especially the last two, which are both labor intensive high-calorie potato-based dishes that are variously fried in oil and served with sour cream, or baked and sizzled in rendered chicken fat (using traditional recipes, anyway). I told the author that’s like having a “typical” Irish dinner of corned beef and cabbage and an Irish stew and a shepherd’s pie and a steak and Guinness pie and boiled potatoes and some Irish soda bread. A bit much, I would say.

Then came the brisket. Vey iz mir. At one point, it seemed like every other story had someone getting ready to chow down on some brisket, which my family only has once a year on Passover, for God’s sake. I emailed the authors, asking, “Are you guys just Googling ‘Jewish food’ and picking the first thing that comes up? You never heard of chopped liver? Or some nice flanken for a change? Maybe a piece of herring?”

They pleaded guilty.

But the Jews know from guilt, too. Even some of the Jewish authors messed up the Yiddish words and phrases in their stories. Part of my job was to establish a style to standardize the transliteration of common Yiddish expressions. What fun.

For the uninitiated, Yiddish was the primary language of the majority of Central and Eastern European Jews for many centuries (German Jews typically spoke German). Descended from Middle High German, with a vocabulary that is roughly 30-40% Slavic and Hebrew, depending on whom you ask, it is written using the Hebrew alphabet. So if it looks like Hebrew and sounds like German, it’s Yiddish.

The problem is that very few contemporary American Jews have had significant contact with genuine literary or conversational Yiddish. Many of them merely remember a few phrases and expressions that bubbe (that’s grandma to you) used to say. But since they’re remembering from way back, they often get it wrong. Think of the classic Mike Meyers Saturday Night Live sketch, “Cawfee Tawk,” whose host was always saying, “I’m getting vaklempt,” meaning emotionally choked up.

The correct Yiddish is farklempt.

The tricky part about getting it right is that if your character is a third or fourth generation descendant of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, then it would be acceptable, even “correct,” to have that character make a mistake in his or her Yiddish. For example, in Eddie Muller’s story, “Doc’s Oscar,” the narrator complains about his “khazerai  wheelchair.” This is ungrammatical.

Khazerai is a noun, meaning “filth, mess, piggishness,” and is not used in Yiddish as an adjective. But after checking with an expert native speaker (my father Arnold Wishnia), who confirmed that Eddie’s character, a boorish Hollywood type of a certain generation, would have said it that way, we decided to leave it in with an explanatory footnote to that effect in the introduction.

We’ve already received an email commenting that “khazerai wheelchair” is wrong and ungrammatical and that we’d better fix it or else. I directed the commenter to the explanatory note. Hope that works.

But the hardest part of being an editor is when you have to reject a story, or deal with authors who—ahem—won’t change a word of their not-quite-flawless stories. This was a situation in which it might have been better to be a paid editor working for the house. Then you can hide behind the generic “this isn’t right for us” response, or the fact that your job is on the line if you accept sub-standard work.

Then there were the people who wanted to be part of the anthology but found out about it too late to be considered. (The slots filled up in about a minute and the anthology ballooned to nearly twice its proposed size, to 32 contributors, and has gone way over budget.) I have already apologized to several authors who were not invited and have promised them an invitation to submit to Jewish Noir 2, should that ever come to pass. (Note: My agent will kill me if I distract myself from my current novel-in-progress with something as insane as doing Jewish Noir 2 at this point.)

Doug Levin! Why didn’t I think of inviting him? Oops.

And Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen favorite, Doug Allyn, who turns out to be Jewish. Who knew?

Even Eddie “The Czar of Noir” Muller said that he recently learned of some Jewish ancestry in his lineage, which raises some serious issues regarding the suppression of Jewish ethnicity during less enlightened times. I mean, how many Americans “discover” that they have Christian ancestors? But that’s a whole other subject for a separate blog.

Now go check out Jewish Noir. Or I’ll sic the global Jewish conspiracy to control world finances and media on you.

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Strike! Revised and Expanded: A Review in Marx & Philosophy

By Mark Bergfeld
Marx & Philosophy
September 18th, 2015

This summer I travelled the USA. As a lover of industrial museums, I made sure to visit New York City’s Tenement Museum and Chicago’s History Museum to learn about workers’ struggles in the Lower East Side and the Haymarket massacre. I even visited Calumet, Michigan’s Coppertown Mining Museum, the site of the Copper County Strike 1913-1914 which Woody Guthrie sung about in 1913 Massacre (Guthrie 1941). Here, 73 people were crushed to death by a stampede after someone – most likely a boss’s thug – falsely shouted ‘fire’ at the striking miners’ Christmas party in the Italian Hall. Despite being an historic site of US labour struggle, the Italian Hall was demolished in 1984 and the museum presents the strike as polarising and dated. Unlike Guthrie they simply label this massacre ‘a disaster’.

So when I opened Jeremy Brecher’s book to read the lines “this neglect of ordinary people’s history is itself part of history” I was overcome with the same feeling I had when reading “the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders” (Zinn 2003, 9) in Zinn’s People’s History of the United States when I was 15, or first encountered George Orwell’s memorable quote “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 2004). Brecher’s book lifts the “iron curtain” with his history from below by raising to Staughton Lynd’s call that history from below should not only be told from the vantage point of oppressed peoples but challenge mainstream versions of the past on the whole (Lynd 2014, xi).

Brecher details “the times of peak conflict” largely written out of the US history: the Great Upheaval in 1877, the strikes of 1886, the May Day massacre, the general strikes at the end of World War I and II, the Teamster strikes of 1934 and the rank and file rebellions of the 1960s and 70s. His narrative is exciting and accessible as his history focuses on the great battles, the general strikes, the armed confrontations, occupations and episodes which Rosa Luxemburg had labelled the “mass strike process” (Luxemburg n.d.). For this new edition, Brecher has re-written the final three chapters. Here he combines his insights on the state of the contemporary labour movement, how it has sought to renew itself through forming labour-community coalitions and worker centres, with a theoretical exegesis on Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike” in times of the Occupy movement.

At its core, Brecher’s book is about the strength and fragility of working class power. He writes:
That power is far different from the power we are familiar with in corporations and other institutions of authority. It is not the power of some people to tell others what to do. It is the power of people directing their own action cooperatively toward common purposes. (4)

For Brecher, working class power emanates from solidarity. According to Brecher, strikes are won or lost insofar as workers are able to build solidarity. This chimes with the original Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) conception of workers’ power which labour organiser Joe Hill wrote about in the chorus There’s Power in a Union. It reads: “There is pow’r, there is pow’r in a band of workingmen, when they stand hand in hand” (Hill, 1913)

In an attempt to de-mobilise and undermine working class unity and solidarity, American capital has consistently made use of racism, whether by bringing in Chinese labourers to build the railroads or their use of Black labour. The official trade unions organised in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) did not challenge the racist agenda as they deliberately excluded unskilled African Americans, women and many immigrants (61). On the other hand, Brecher shows how Black workers kick-started the New Orleans general strike (1894) which then spread to white workers. Furthermore, the May Day strike was led by German and Bohemian immigrant workers (55). Interestingly, the book features a bilingual German-English leaflet for the Chicago rally and photos of the New York May Day parade in 1913 featuring posters and signs in Italian, English and Yiddish next to one other (59).

Brecher takes his argument of the power of solidarity further by implicitly arguing that workers’ structural power (Wright 2000) does not suffice to win strikes. During the Great Upheaval in 1877 they refused to handle struck equipment and did not take striking railroad workers’ jobs. A further determining factor is wider support by town and city populations as a strike could only maintain itself as long as the bosses couldn’t summon any strike breakers (15-16). Railroad workers, dock workers or air traffic controllers are defined by their structurally powerful position in the labour market or in the production process of the economy. Their form of power is primarily objective insofar that it does not depend on levels of class consciousness, organisation or workers’ self- activity. It is a potentiality.

Due to the high levels of violence unleashed against striking workers, that potentiality could not often be realised in the past. The American ruling class feared a rebellious population more than foreign invasion. The state and capital relied on company spies to keep workers in check (63), used strike-breakers when necessary (46) and at times even employed the US Army to intervene against its own population (46, 104). Too often, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) remained passive and did not support the strike movements for the eight hour day, for example (47).

However by the beginning of the nineteenth Century capital no longer needed to use violence at all times and instead could introduce new technologies to render workers structurally powerless and subjugate them to its rule (69). That is why workers time again made use of the “power of mayhem”.

Brecher’s book might be a history of defeats, but he displays what Gramsci labelled “optimism of the will” (Gramsci 1929). This allows him to see a continuity between past, present and future movements. One of the additional chapters in this new edition deals with the movements of the early twenty-first Century: the Battle of Seattle, the immigrant rights demonstrations in 2006, the Wisconsin Uprising, and the Occupy movement. Brecher aptly labels these ‘mini-revolts’. These are marked by what Marina Sitrin calls the “power of creativity” in her new Foreword.

While it is necessary to distinguish between halting the production and circulation of capital through strikes and other forms of civil disobedience which symbolically target multinational corporations Brecher rightly sees them part of the same continuum. Thus, he does not accept the false dichotomy which sees workers’ movements and social movements as distinct and separate. Instead, he treats the latter as “mediated expressions” of class struggle (Barker 2013, 47) when he writes: “The mini-revolts […] provide a way to probe the changes taking place in working-class life, organization, and action that will help determine the future of working-class self-organization” (317).

The three workers’ movements discussed in the final chapter point to the future. The strikes in the fast food industry and Chicago’s public schools highlight the diversity of the working class. In both strikes women, Black and ethnic minority workers and immigrants have made up the majority of the striking workforce. The Wisconsin Uprising highlighted new forms of worker organising in old public sector unions. These struggles underlie that working people “may use unions and other established organizations as their means to do so; but in many cases they have had to organize themselves and act outside institutionalized channels.” (3)

Despite the heroic nature of struggles depicted in this book, the US working class is institutionally and organisationally weaker than other labour movements in the Western Hemisphere. The lack of credible social-democratic formation has arguably stifled unions’ institutional power. Today, collective bargaining agreements, union recognition, political representation and rights such as the right to strike have been massively undermined through right to work legislation. Ever fewer numbers of workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. Too frequently, this loss of institutional power is popularised into “workers don’t have power”. Brecher’s book reminds us that power ultimately lies in collective action and solidarity above all.

    •    Barker, C. (2013). Class Struggle and Social Movement. In C. Barker, L. Cox, J. Krinsky, & A. G. Nilsen (Eds.), Marxism and Social Movements (Historical., pp. 41–63). Leiden & Boston: Brill.
    •    Gramsci, A. (1929). Letter from Prison (19 December 1929).
    •    Guthrie, W. (1941). Woodie Guthrie: 1913 Massacre. USA. Retrieved from
    •    Hill, J. (1913). Joe Hill:There’s Power in a Union. USA: The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from
    •    Luxemburg, R. (n.d.). The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. Retrieved September 11, 2015, from
    •    Lynd, S. (2014). Doing History from the Bottom Up: On E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below. Haymarket Books.
    •    Orwell, G. (2004). Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1st World Library - Literary Society.
    •    Wright, E. O. (2000). Interests and Class Compromise, American Journal of Sociology, 105(4), 957–1002.
    •    Zinn, H. (2015). A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. Taylor & Francis

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Ann VanderMeer talks about the climate of science fiction these days and Sisters of the Revolution

By Sarah Mirk
Bitch Magazine
September 3rd, 2015

This summer, something really exciting happened in the world of science fiction.

The Hugo Awards are the biggest prize in science fiction. While women have been writing sci-fi since the beginning of the genre, Hugo Awards have gone almost entirely to dudes. That swiftly changed in recent years—in 2013, female authors were 60 percent of nominees for the prestigious prize. The burgeoning diversity of the Hugo Awards pissed off a group of several hundred white, male sci-fi fans, who schemed to swing the awards back in the favor of male authors by voting as a block. But the rest of the Hugo Awards voters pushed back. At the awards ceremony on August 22, the results came in: No authors endorsed by the white-dude-group took home any awards. Instead, in five categories that had only “rigged” nominees, the majority of voters instead decided to vote for no award. As Wired reports, Best Fan Writer award winner Laura J. Mixon told the crowd in her acceptance speech, “There’s room for all of us here. But there’s no middle ground between ‘We belong here’ and ‘No you don’t.’”  

At the same time as the status of women and people of color is raging in sci-fi fandom, editors Ann and Jeff VanderMeer published a compelling new anthology of feminist science fiction. Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology collects short stories published over the past 40 years, showing the impact feminist sci-fi has been making for decades. The anthology, from PM Press, includes work from 24 authors including stand-bys like Octavia Butler, Angela Carter, and Ursula K. Le Guin as well as relatively newer writers like Nnedi Okorafor. One of my favorite stories in the collection is the very first one, L. Timmel Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A,” which is a detailed report from a journalist sent on a heavily monitored press junket to interview dissident Margaret A, who is under house arrest in a future America. Published in 1990, the story reminded me starkly of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in the midst of her 21 years under house arrest.

I talked with Ann VanderMeer, who works as an editor at Tor publishing house, about the climate of science fiction these days. She hopes this feminist sci-fi anthology will be the first of many collections that will cement female writers in the sci-fi canon.

Octavia Butler's story “The Evening the Morning and the Night” is featured in Sisters of the Revolution.

SARAH MIRK: When did you first start editing science fiction?

ANN VANDERMEER: Oh gosh. Okay, this is going to show you how old I am. I started my own magazine back [The Silver Web] in the late ‘80s, because I was a huge fan of reading it and there were a lot of small press magazines being published at that time that I subscribed to. At a certain point, I just sort of said to myself, “I bet I could do a better job.” I didn’t know anything about anything, I just knew that I loved to read. So, that’s what got me started in publishing my own magazine, and then that just jumped off and gave me other opportunities. Some of the writers, I published their first stories, and they’re still publishing today. So I think the reason why I got involved in it is because I just loved to read so much, and when I find something that I truly love, I want to share it. 

Since you’ve been in this for a long time, how do you think science fiction is changing?

I’m just really hopeful and excited for the future. I think it’s changing in a lot of ways, because having all these different perspectives, and different views coming into the science fiction community can only make it better. You gotta think about it this way, Sarah. When you think about what science fiction is—science fiction is of the future, what it answers is the “What ifs.” Let’s take a look and extrapolate what our future is going to be. So when you’re talking about the future, you have to be able to see the future in the context of the world you’re living in today, that’s what everyone does when they start writing whatever it is that they’re writing. So, when you have a science fiction story set in the future, you’re extrapolating the best or maybe the worst case scenario that you’re seeing. Maybe it’s dystopian. But to me, the fiction of science fiction is hopeful because human beings are still wanting to have a better world. And sometimes fiction can help the world change. Look at Sinclair’s The Jungle, the book that he wrote that created all those food and drug administration laws back in the last century. Some fiction can change the world. A lot of science fiction written actually inspired people to go into the hard sciences and become astronauts and make differences that way.

So for this anthology, how did you define what qualifies as feminist speculative fiction? I’m usually not one to draw a line in the sand and say “This is feminist, this is not.” But when you’re putting together an anthology that’s explicitly feminist, you have to decide what’s feminist compared to what fiction is discussing social issues in other ways.

When you’re doing an anthology, any kind of anthology, the definitions that you create are going to be subjective. So, this was our point of view, and what we were trying to do is to show different ways in which the feminist themes can be explored. It wasn’t just highly political rhetoric, where you look at it and you know, “Yes, this is a feminist story.” It might not necessarily be that way. But we wanted to show how many different ways there are to explore gender, to explore equality, and community. We were trying to explore intersectionality, it was more than just one thing. Now of course when this came out, I’m sure there was a lot of people that said, “Well you should have had this story, you should have had that story,” and I agree! There’s a lot of stories we could have put in there, but we only had so much space, there was only so much we could do. But we did try and touch on all different types of stories. We also wanted to make sure, for the reader, our audience, the reader experience, that as they’re reading it, we want to make sure that the stories work well together, and that they’re different enough from each other that the reader’s not going to get bored.

I wanted to start off with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” I thought that was a perfect story to set up the book because it talks about women’s voices and the danger of women’s voices and what that means in the world. And I just thought it was the perfect way, because sisters of the revolution, that’s what we’re talking about: women’s voices, women’s experiences, women’s perspectives.

The collection includes “The Screwfly Solution” by Alice Bradley Sheldon, who went by pen name James Tiptree, Jr. from 1967-1987.

One thing that’s funny is that I’ve been telling my friends about this book, and they keep saying, “Oh, that sounds like Octavia’s Brood!” That’s the science fiction and social justice anthology that came out earlier this year. And I’m like, “No no, it’s not Octavia’s Brood, it’s a different feminist science fiction anthology.” So I was wondering, have you heard of Octavia’s Brood?

I have heard of that book, and I have to apologize that I haven’t read it, I’m really behind on my reading currently, because my head’s be so into this project, but I’m really looking forward to being able to read more. From what I understand, that book, most of the stories that are in there are more current, I could be completely wrong.

I think it’s a good companion to it—

Exactly, because it’s looking at right now.

Yeah, it’s all new work just for that anthology. And this is great because it’s sort of looking back through history at people who inspired writers of today. I’m wondering if you feel like, in your opinion, feminist science fiction is having a renaissance right now. Or am I just living in a bubble where more people are talking about it?

Well, I don’t know if it’s necessarily a renaissance, but I think it’s really exploding as far as its commercial viability. I think the rest of the world is starting to catch up with what we’ve known all along: how cool it is. I just think it’s become more mainstream, and so people are doing it now, it’s more respectable, it’s something that’s being studied in universities, it’s not something you hide behind a cover of a different book. Also, more and more people in the world are writing it and because of advances in technology and the Internet, we’re able to share it with each other.  

Ursula K. Le Guin's story "Sur" is in the collection. Photo by Jack Liu. 

What I like about this anthology is there a lot of authors in it whose work I know and there are many names I don’t know at all. It’s cool as a reader to be able to look through those.

Well, I’m so glad that you said that, because that means that I did my job. That’s really something I want to do, in every project I do, I want people to see something familiar and something they’ve never heard of before.

Can we talk about the Hugo Awards, which happened this weekend?

Oh, yeah. My husband and I actually streamed it so we were up really late on the couch watching it.

I was wondering what you think of the “puppies” pushback to the Awards and what that reveal.

Well I have to say I was really excited at the people that won. The best novel category, I was very, very excited about that, because I know both the writer and the translator, so that was—I mean the way that I look at the outcome of the entire awards ceremony is it was showing you that science fiction is bigger than just the United States and the U.K. That’s how I felt. The science fiction community is definitely making that outreach into the wider world. When you think about the Hugos, what you’re looking at is a popularity contest in a sense because the awards are going to be voted on by the people that buy the memberships. It’s plain and simple. It’s not a juried award, there’s no judge, it’s just who’s voting and how they’re voting. So it’s just by the numbers. When you look at it that way, the thing that was really exciting to me is that this past year they had more than double the average number of people voting than they’ve had in the past. I think they had close to 6,000 people who voted.

Did more people turn out to vote because they’d heard about the controversy over the awards?

Well, I think people were getting more involved in the discussion. If you take a look at the numbers, and you look at the number of people who are actually members of World Con, every single person who signs up for a membership, whether it’s supporting or attending, can vote. So, typically, only half of the people that have memberships, vote. Only half. It’s kind of like when you take a look at our Presidential elections, what’s the percentage of people that vote? Not everybody. But we had so many people that actually voted. Now, here’s the good thing about that. It’s not true for every voter, I’m not naïve, but a lot of voters went in and read the stories, which to me is amazing. So a lot of those stories got a larger audience than they ever would.

So were you surprised by the pushback against the feminist momentum in science fiction these days or is that something that you could see coming?

Well, I don’t know if I was so much surprised by it because there’s always been the possibility of block voting or slight voting in the past. It’s not something new with the Hugos. What’s new, I think, this time is because of the technology that we have and the larger world that we have, I think there was probably more attention on it. We’ve been doing the Hugos for 50, 60 years now, something like that. And the last couple years, it’s actually being reported in mainstream newspapers, in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, who never cared.  

Related Listening: Our feminism and sci-fi podcast explores the connections between social justice and science fiction. 

Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She's interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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Revolution At the Witching Hour: The Legacy of Midnight Notes

by James Lindenschmidt
Gods & Radicals Journal
September 2015

It is no great surprise to me that Silvia Federici‘s book Caliban & The Witch has gained so much traction in the Pagan community in recent years. When I first read the book more than a decade ago, I knew it would be important for Pagans, simply because it told our story, our history, from the most complete and insightful historical and theoretical perspective I had ever seen. I am on record as saying it is the most important political book yet written in the 21st century, since it deals with the story of the transition to capitalism, with all the violence, blood, fire, and greed that accompanied and forced the transition. But since I have been a Pagan for nearly 30 years, I tended to see the subject matter less in terms of the transition to capitalism, but rather more in terms of the final transition away from Paganism, in the multitude and myriad of ways various paganisms were expressed before they were crushed and assimilated into the new mechanistic worldview of capitalism.

But Silvia Federici is not a ‘Pagan,’ despite the great service her work has been to our community. The context of her work, however, can be just as valuable to us as Caliban itself has been. Three or four decades before that book was published, a few groups of thinkers, writers, students, and teachers began working together. Two of them were the feminist Wages For Housework movement, as well as the Zerowork Collective. Both are worthy of investigation and further study. But by the end of the 1970s, a new group had emerged, which will be the focus of this piece.

A Brief History

midnight_notes_sloganHistory tells us that the Midnight Notes Collective began in the late 1970s with discussions between Monty Neill, Hans Widmer (aka p.m.), and George Caffentzis, with John WiIlshire Carrerra and Peter Linebaugh getting involved early on. Indeed, the membership of the Collective has been quite fluid over the years, both because people naturally tend to come and go over the years, and also because there were years when they intentionally remained anonymous to avoid overt harassment and repression form the establishment, an important strategy of self-preservation for a group demonstrating a “commitment to revolutionary possibilities.” They also wanted to avoid the “rock star” cult of personality, which was common in academia at the time. In addition to the people directly involved with Midnight Notes (including the above as well as Silvia Federici, Dan Coughlin, David Riker, Vasilis Passas, Johnny Machete, and Michaela Brennan, among others ), there were also various friends & associates over the years, including Steven Colatrella, John Roosa, Harry Cleaver, and Massimo de Angelis.

Despite the fluidity of the group, there was an important coherence to their ideas, expressed in a variety of publications over the years, starting in 1979 and running through the Reagan Years into the Bush era, all of which are now available online:

  1. Strange Victories (1979)
  2. No Future Notes: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Anti-Nuclear Movement (1979)
  3. The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse (1980)
  4. Space Notes (1981)
  5. Computer State Notes (1982)
  6. Posthumous Notes (1983)
  7. Lemming Notes (1984)
  8. Outlaw Notes (1985)
  9. Wages — Mexico — India — Libya (1988)
  10. The New Enclosures (1990)

These earliest publications from Midnight Notes are worth checking out, as a great glimpse into the political climate of the Reagan/Bush years, as the transition of capitalism from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism was cemented.

After these original issues, there were several more publications, some of them book-length, from the group:

Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 (1992, Autonomedia)
This anthology is an analysis of the “energy crisis” of the 1970s, which they framed as a “work/energy crisis,” as well as a look at the evolution of capitalism in the 1980s. It contains several of their previous writings from earlier publications, namely The New Enclosures and The Work/Energy Crisis And The Apocalypse, with other articles written to fill in some of the theoretical gaps, additional analysis, and history. This book might be the best overall introduction to the thought of Midnight Notes in general. While in some ways it is dated from the 2015 point of view, it is my personal favorite analysis of the transition from Keynesianism to Neoliberalism, and broadened my understanding of today’s capitalism.

Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local & Global Struggles of the Fourth World War (2001, Autonomedia)
This book is an anthology of writing, using the Zapatista uprising in Mexico as the focal point for anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-globalization theory and history. Midnight Notes saw that this uprising was “a luminous crack in a clouded sky,” the first “movement that consciously pitted itself against global capital and at the same time was rooted in a territorial reality.”

Promissory Notes: From Crisis To Commons (2009)
This much shorter piece, published in 2009, is an analysis of the 2007-2008 “Great Recession” or global financial crisis. It also showed that the crisis was largely yet another “apocalypse” or evolution of capital from the neoliberalism from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and represented neoliberal “capital’s flight into financialization,” or the “attempt to ‘make money from money’ at the most abstract level of the system once making money from production no longer sufficed.”

After barraging you with so many links to their writings over the years, I will now attempt to distill their writing into a few of what I perceive to be their key ideas over nearly 40 years of writing.

3 Key Ideas

I remember when my own political outlook begin to evolve away from mainstream partisan politics in the US and toward a more radical outlook, I felt a dearth of information. Most of this was getting used to where information comes from: learning how to disengage from the received dialogues and worldview propagated by the capitalist media and the prevailing cultural outlook I grew up with in suburbia, and toward more obscure, alternative sources was a challenge. To this day, I think that truth discernment is arguably the biggest challenge facing alternative thinkers in the information age. In some ways it’s even more challenging these days, since you can encounter just about every possible viewpoint articulated somewhere on the Internet.

In the late 90s, I was lucky enough to begin studying philosophy at the University of Southern Maine, where George Caffentzis was a teacher. It was a small department, so if you hung out at the philosophy house it was easy to get to know some of the folks who taught there. I was intrigued by George’s ideas and thoughts right from the beginning. There are a lot of great teachers there, but I knew right away that I had a lot to learn from George. I remember early in my freshman year, he did a senior seminar on the philosophy of money, and being really bummed that I was nowhere near far enough along in my philosophy study to be able to take it. So I began to poke around for some of George’s writings, and before long I discovered Midnight Notes. This was in the early days of the Internet, before the writings were available online. I began to read them, and they were definitely challenging. I hadn’t yet read Marx or really any other radical political writings, and in retrospect Midnight Notes served as not only a fabulous introduction, but also an enduring foundation for my radical political thinking. I am grateful for this bit of serendipity that brought me to Maine at this point in spacetime.

Having studied Midnight Notes over the past 15 years, I think these are the most important ideas to glean from their writings:

1. Capitalist Crisis/Apocalypse Is Always About Class Struggle

Automobiles lining up for fuel at a service station in the U.S. state of Maryland in the United States, in June 1979.

Automobiles lining up for fuel at a service station in the U.S. state of Maryland in the United States, in June 1979.

This idea was first articulated in their 3rd issue: The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse, written in 1980 after the so-called “energy crisis” of the 1970s had been underway for the better part of a decade, peaking in both 1973 and 1979. I was a child in the 1970s, and I remember seeing the long lines for gasoline, complaints about OPEC and Jimmy Carter, but very little about class struggle. Interestingly, this was also the last decade where labor strikes were common, since strikes were more or less wiped out by the Reagan administration starting in 1981 when he fired the air traffic controllers who had unionized under PATCO and voted to strike. Their argument is quite detailed, but the essence of it is that

Capitalist crises stem from a refusal of work…. The term “energy crisis” is a misnomer. Energy is conserved and quantitatively immense, there can be no lack of it. The true cause of capital’s crisis in the last decade is work, or more precisely, the struggle against it. The proper name for the crisis then is the “work crisis” or, better, the “work/energy crisis.” For the problem capital faces is not the quantity of work per se, but the ratio of that work to the energy (or labor power) that creates it…. Through the noise of the apocalypse, we must see in the oil caverns, in the wisps of natural gas curling in subterranean abysses, something more familiar: the class struggle (Midnight Notes, The Work/Energy Crisis & The Apocalypse).

2. The New Enclosures

Arguably the most important insight that came from Midnight Notes’ writings is the notion of the New Enclosures. Before this insight, enclosure, or “primitive accumulation” in Marxist terminology, was largely seen as a historical artifact from the beginning of capitalist society. Midnight Notes showed that enclosures

“are not a one time process exhausted at the dawn of capitalism. They are a regular return on the path of accumulation and a structural component of class struggle. Any leap in proletarian power demands a dynamic capitalist response: both the expanded appropriation of new resources and new labor power and the extension of capitalist relations, or else capitalism is threatened with extinction.” (Midnight Oil, 318)

Midnight Notes then argued that the New Enclosures took five forms:

  1. Ending communal control of the means of subsistence
  2. Seizing land for debt
  3. Make mobile & migrant labor the dominant form of labor
  4. The collapse of socialism
  5. Attack on our reproduction

They — both the collective itself, and several of the writers working outside the collective — have continued to develop these ideas of enclosure since then.

3. Commons & Commoning

The last idea I think is the most important to come from Midnight Notes is reclaiming the notion of the Commons and Commoning. This idea is the logical extension of their insights about Enclosure, since the Commons is the very thing that is being enclosed. These insights came later in the Midnight Notes, particularly through their admiration and analysis of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico beginning on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Midnight Notes argues that these struggles represent

on one side, capital’s attempt to form a new level of global superstate and economy and, on the other, an anti-capitalist struggle moving from a multiplicity of localities to large-scale confrontations like the “Battle of Seattle” in late 1999. The Zapatistas have aptly named this struggle “the Fourth World War.”

Commoning is at the center of this struggle, since the commons provides subsistence for resistance, and “this power to subsist/resist is exactly what capital wants to eliminate throughout the world.” In general, and to some degree, capital is always enclosing, whereas the working class is always commoning, and commoning is central to resistance against capital.

Caffentzis, Federici, Linebaugh: 3 Contemporary Thinkers

After this all-too-brief look at the Midnight Notes Collective itself, I now want to turn to 3 new books, published by PM Press, from three of the most important voices within Midnight Notes. While George Caffentzis and Peter Linebaugh have been involved with Midnight Notes from its earliest days, it is important to note that Silvia Federici has remained a bit more aloof from the collective over the years. While she was part of the collective for a few of the later original Midnight Notes publications (namely The New Enclosures), and her writings appear in Midnight Oil and Auroras of the Zapatistas, she is not listed as a member of the collective in either of those books. While I do not pretend to be privy to the undercurrents of interpersonal dynamics and ideological differences within the group, I suspect that Silvia’s unwavering commitment to feminism is at the root of the aloofness. And I should also point out that George Caffentzis conveyed to me in a conversation that for the most part it was Midnight Notes responding to Federici’s work rather than vice versa. All three of these books are anthologies of writing from the careers of each writer, to which I now turn.

In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis Of Capitalism

George Caffentzis, In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis of Capitalism

George Caffentzis, In Letters Of Blood & Fire: Work, Machines, & the Crisis of Capitalism

Of the three, George Caffentzis is the most traditional, albeit radical, “philosopher of the anticapitalist movement.” In Letters Of Blood & Fire is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Work/Refusal, Part 2 is Machines, and Part 3 is Money, War, & Crisis. Part 1 begins with the aforementioned “The Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocalypse,” which remains foundational to much of Caffentzis’ subsequent work. These analyses contain wonderful insights, such as this analysis of the relationship between capital’s production, value, and prices:

The hand of capital is different than its mouth and its asshole. The transformation of value into prices is real, but it also causes illusions in the brains of both capitalists and workers (including you and me!). It all revolves around “mineness,” the deepest pettiness in the Maya of the system: capital appears as little machines, packets of materials, little incidents of work, all connected to us — its little agents of complaint, excuse, and hassle. Each individual capitalist complains about “my” money, each individual worker cries about “my” job, each union official complains about “my” industry; tears flow everywhere, apparently about different things, so that capitalism’s house is an eternal soap opera. “Mineness” is an essential illusion, though illusion all the same. Capital is social, as is work, and it is also as pitiless as Shiva to the complainers, whose blindness capital needs to feed itself. It no more rewards capitalists to the extent that they exploit than it rewards workers to the extent that they are exploited. There is no justice for anyone but itself.

Part 2, on Machines, is a more technical analysis of the place of machines within capitalism, and particularly within the Marxist analysis of capital. Central to his arguments is the piece from 1997, “Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines,” whose argument is self-contained in the title.

Part 3 contains a very short and succinct piece, which I recommend as the briefest and most coherent introduction to Caffentzis’ work overall. “The Power of Money: Debt & Enclosure” is a very brief look at money in the human experience:

For most of human history, money either did not exist (before roughly the seventh century BC) or it was of marginal importance for most people on the planet (until roughly the nineteenth century AD). Why is it so important now?

He then articulates the “economist’s fairy tale,” which is the received story about the function of money simplifying exchange as compared to barter, as well as “lowering costs” of trade. He points out that money, too, has its transaction costs that mostly go overlooked by capitalist economists.

All in all, these writings convey Marx’s image that the story of the origins of capitalism, and its reproduction, are written “in the letters of blood and fire used to drive workers form the common lands, forests, and waters in the sixteenth century.” I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the most technical analysis of capitalism, from a detailed philosophical perspective.

Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, & Feminist Struggle

Silvia Federici, Revolution At Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

Silvia Federici, Revolution At Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

As previously stated, Silvia Federici is the feminist of these three thinkers. Revolution at Point Zero, an anthology of her work over the past 40 years, all of which explore the “zero point of revolution” which is where “new social relations first burst forth, from which countless waves ripple outward into other domains.” It, too, is divided into three parts. Part 1 is Theorizing and Politicizing Housework, containing her earlier, foundational work such as “Wages Against Housework” from 1975, as well as “Why Sexuality Is Work” and “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet.” Part 2 is Globalization and Social Reproduction, and contains 4 essays including “Women, Globalization, and the International Women’s Movement.”

Part 3, Reproducing Commons, has her most recent work including “Feminism and the Politics of the Common in an Era of Primitive Accumulation” from 2010, which contains the powerful argument that there is an “oblivion” in “our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, the computers with which we communicate.” For Federici,

Overcoming this oblivion is where a feminist perspective teaches us to start in our reconstruction of the commons. No common is possible unless we refuse to base our life, our reproduction on the suffering of others, unless we refuse to see ourselves as separate from them. Indeed if “commoning” has any meaning, it must be the production of ourselves as a common subject. This is how we must understand the slogan “no commons without community…. community as a quality of relations, a principle of cooperation and responsibility: to each other, the earth, the forests, the seas, the animals.

Federici’s writings here concentrate on “social reproduction,” which is the ways in which society and the people in it reproduce themselves. It is the food we eat, the social relations we share outside the work environment, our basic needs down to clean water & air, shelter and clothing. All of these things are “the most labor-intensive work on earth, and to a large extent it is work that is irreducible to mechanization.” It is also work that is largely unwaged, and exists in the context of capitalist enclosure. I highly recommend this book for those interested in not only a feminist perspective, but also in very practical, day-to-day ideas about how we can be commoning and resist capital.

Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, & Resistance

Peter Linebaugh. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

Peter Linebaugh. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance

Finally, Peter Linebaugh is the historian and storyteller of the three. He is an engaging writer, and the stories he tells need to be heard and retold. Stop, Thief! is divided into five sections. Section 1, The Commons, is the best primer I know of to exploring what Commons & Commoning is. Start with “Some Principles of the Commons,” which is a very short introduction, showing us that the commons “is best understood as a verb,” and then “Stop, Thief! A Primer on the Commons & Commoning” fills in one’s understanding that the commons “is not a thing but a relationship” as it applies to various modes of living & knowing.

Part 2, “Charles Marks,” are some of Linebaugh’s contributions to Marxism in history. Part 3, The “UK”, are looks at English History including “Ned Ludd & Queen Mab,” which shows us that the Luddites were not technophobes but rather were cross-dressing warriors, “anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.” Part 4, The “USA,” contains “Introduction to Thomas Paine” and “Meandering at the Crossroads of Communism and the Commons,” which take a look at the vast commons that existed in pre-colonialist North America. This analysis is continued in Part 5, “First Nations,” with its three essays, “The Red-Crested Bird and Black Duck”, “The Commons, the Castle, the Witch, and the Lynx,” and “The Invisibility of the Commons.”

Of the three, Linebaugh’s writing might be the most readable. I agree with Robin Kelley, who wrote about an earlier book from Linebaugh that there is “not a more important historian living today. Period.” I highly recommend this book for people who want to broaden their understanding of the Commons and Commoning, through the voice of a master storyteller, an engaging and agile writer.

The Witching Hour Legacy

These three thinkers, as well as The Midnight Notes Collective and all who have participated in it over the years, represent a vast treasure trove for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of capitalism, crisis, resistance & class struggle, enclosure, commons/commoning, and revolutionary possibilities in the 21st century. These writers and ideas were foundational to my own development as a radical thinker and writer, and I remain grateful for their work.

About James Lindenschmidt

Moving between Animist & Panentheist, Druid & Heathen, Bard & Philosopher, Anarchist & Autonomist, James Lindenschmidt has embraced the word “Pagan” for more than twenty years. He feeds his spirit by bonding with his ecosystem, and learning to work with it in better and better relationship. He views fermentation as a devotional practice, with mead being the highest alchemical expression of an ecosystem. Read more at

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Close encounters with feminist science fiction in ‘Sisters of the Revolution’

By Elizabeth Hand
LA Times
August 6th, 2015

Mary Shelley usually gets mad props as the progenitor of feminist science fiction for her 1818 "Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus." But pride of place arguably goes to Mary Cavendish, who in 1668 penned a feminist utopian novel, "The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World," in response to Robert Hooke's "Micrographia," which in 1665 put microscopes on the map and coined the biological term "cell." Cavendish delved into speculation as to what might exist beneath and within the world we know, or think we know (alien life forms played a role). She was given the sobriquet "Mad Madge" for her pains.

Nearly 300 years later, things had improved … barely. "Women are writing SCIENCE FICTION!" trumpeted the flap copy for Margaret St. Clair's 1963 novel "Sign of the Labrys." Women, it went on to say, "are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel."

Those who don't possess a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past are condemned to repeat it. So thank the Goddess for "Sisters of the Revolution," a superlative new anthology of previously published feminist science fiction by female writers, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Noted editors of numerous anthologies of speculative fiction, the VanderMeers have compiled one of the best volumes of feminist — or any other — science fiction in years. "Sisters of the Revolution" reaches back to the late 1960s and extends to 2012, with the lioness' share of tales originally published between 1980 and 2000.

There are classic, much-anthologized stories by well-known writers here. "The Screwfly Solution," a brilliant, terrifying tale of global femicide by James M. Tiptree Jr. [pseudonym for Alice Sheldon], carries even more impact in our own age of rampant violence against women than when it first appeared in 1977. An off-world feminist utopia confronts its own destruction in "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ, whose "How to Suppress Women's Writing" was a touchstone for second-wave feminists. Ursula Le Guin is represented by "Sur," in which a group of bluestockings mount an early 20th century expedition to Antarctica. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" by Octavia Butler explores the global effect of a fictional neurovirus, and "how much of what we do is encouraged, discouraged, or otherwise guarded by what we are genetically," as she states in her short afterword to this poignant tale. Angela Carter's "The Fall River Axe Murders" follows Lizzie Borden on the sultry August morning of the day that her "Sargasso calm" notoriously erupts, suggesting motives that were ignored at the time.

But much of the pleasure in "Sisters of the Revolution" derives from encountering work by writers who aren't household names. The stories are arranged as to how they "speak to one another rather than chronological order". So Anne Richter's "The Sleep of Plants," deftly translated from the Belgian by Edward Gauvin, segues into Kelly Barnhill's dreamy and dark magical realist tale, "The Men Who Live in Trees," which slides into Hiromi Goto's "Tales From the Breast" ("You want to yell down the hall that you have a name and it isn't Breast Milk").

Readers can also compare depictions of maternal love in Kit Reed's viciously funny "The Mothers of Shark Island" and Nnedi Okorafor's "The Palm Tree Bandit," whose narrator tells her young daughter of her namesake great-grandmother's daring nocturnal exploits, and delight in riffs on such oft-told tales as Kelley Eskridge's gender-bending "And Salome Danced" and Nalo Hopkinson's creepy Bluebeard story, "The Glass Bottle Trick." And these are just a handful of the stories contained in this distaff treasure chest: Every single one is a gem.

Forty years ago, in her essay "American SF and the Other," Le Guin wryly observed: "The women's movement has made most of us conscious of the fact that SF has either totally ignored women, or presented them as squeaking dolls subject to instant rape by monsters — or old-maid scientists desexed by hypertrophy of the intellectual organs — or, at best, loyal little wives or mistresses of accomplished heroes."

There are no squeaking dolls or loyal little wives here, no old maid scientists — and if there were, woe betide anyone who took them at face value.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Ann VanderMeer's homepage | Back to Jeff VanderMeer's homepage


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