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“A Good Woman is Hard to Find”
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“A Good Woman is Hard to Find”
Woon-young Chun , Needle , female monstrosity , body discourse , Korean femininity
  • “The grotesque is the estranged world.”

    — Wolfgang Kayser

    The monster is a composite of all that we as a society abhor. Although perhaps difficult to nail down to a specific meaning, the monster is generally taken as the “sickening Other [which] inspires disgust, anxiety, and even nausea”; in a word, the monster embodies our fears, but more so, “our hatreds” (Poole 13). Holding them in abomination, we banish our monsters to the periphery, and thus render the monstrous synonymous with the marginalized and vice versa. The monstrous represents the “estranged world” which does not fit in with and cannot gain access to the social norm. Still, from the Anglo-Saxon Grendel to today’s Twilight phenomenon, the monster has tenaciously endured throughout the stories of the ages, thereby evidencing that it is inextricably bound to society. As the self’s “darker sister,” the monster is essential to the social order in that its otherness allows the hegemony to define itself and centralize its authority around the power of the norm; in other words, the monster must be at once extirpated for its disruption of the natural order and conversely salvaged for its normalizing capacity. While its grotesquery may terrify us, what eventually makes the monster so ominous is its audacity to remind us of our own frailties and unstable positioning within the society of the norm. The monster remains desirable all the same because it provides a space to explore (and subsequently serves to destabilize) these anxieties. In this way, the monster becomes a strange amalgamation of fear and desire.

    This essay examines the monstrous women who appear in Korean female writer Woon-young Chun’s first short story collection Needle (2001), which spotlights the lives of the marginalized and notably presents the female body as one that is riddled with monstrosity and grotesquery. In my reading, I set two short stories “Needle” and “Breath” against each other; both deserve critical attention in that the former, as the book’s titular piece, contains major hallmarks of Chun’s work, and the latter presents an “anomaly” in Chun’s ragtag collection of heroines: the vegetarian woman whose hyperfeminine and hypersexualized body effects reconciliation between the two genders. I have also found it conducive to compare Chun’s monstrous women to Foucault’s conceptualization of the monster; monsters are, Foucault tells us, “living transgressions […] the kind of natural irregularity that calls law into question and disables it” (64). Many of Chun’s critics, perhaps in way of giving a nod to Foucault’s monster, concur that Chun, in her depiction of transgressive monstrous women, aims to deconstruct the conventional definition of femininity and in so doing, deploys the reconfigured concepts (specifically of monstrosity and femininity) to critique the state of female marginality in contemporary Korean society.

    It is not my intent to downplay Chun’s keen ability to recognize women’s marginalized positionality as society’s “freaks,” nor do I wish to deny the possibility that through such disconcerting portrayals, Chun tackles the ways in which contemporary Korean society demonizes its women. At the same time, I maintain that we must heed Diana Taylor’s discerning observation that even though one major function of the literary monster may lie in its capacity to challenge particular norms, the monster more often than not fails to “render unintelligible or meaningless the concept of the norm, nor [is it able to] eradicate the distinction between the normal and the abnormal” (130-1). In fact, the monster oftentimes ends up “rearticulat[ing] and augment[ing] existing norms and power relations or develop[ing] and establish[ing] new ones” (130-1). Thus I submit that it is critical that we consider the real likelihood that Chun, as a “good subject,” is faithfully reflecting back and replicating the patriarchal discourse about “bad” female bodies that must be disciplined and punished if they fail to fall into line. For one, Chun, in her emphasis on monstrous women, seemingly veers away from a feminist discourse aspiring to destabilize a gender-biased view of femininity as a “handicap,” an inferior version of masculinity. Admittedly, almost all of Chun’s characters – both male and female – are outsiders. Yet, the marginality of Chun’s monstrous women is redoubled by their gender, and they are situated all the more firmly as the oppressed in the binary world of predators and prey. Furthermore, Chun does not appear to deploy the “emancipatory potential” in the characterization of her monsters (Taylor 126), nor does she foreground female monstrosity as a way to deconstruct and subvert gender conventions. Instead, she presents an alternative – i.e., a more socially acceptable – representation of women: the vegetarian woman who collapses the two mutually exclusive bodies – the maternal and the hypersexual – of conventional femininity. What is perhaps the most dangerous about Chun’s reliance on “the womanas-monster” trope is that her narratives end up reinforcing the marginality of these monstrous women without calling into question and disabling the patriarchal law which segregates the center and the margins; in fact, it is possible to conclude that both “Needle” and “Breath” end with the reaffirmation of masculinity. It is these contradictions within Chun’s portrayal of women that prompt further investigation, especially her bifurcation of women into vegetarians and meat-eaters, the Madonna-esque good subjects who are embraced by men and their bad sisters whom men alienate and exploit. Conceding that there may be some empowering aspects to Chun’s figuring of the female body as an aggressive monster, I aim to examine how such delineation may inadvertently reinforce the subaltern status of women in contemporary Korean society.

    Woon-young Chun first entered the Korean literary scene in 2000 with the publication of her short story “Needle.” Alongside “Needle,” she collected eight others to publish Needle the following year. Many of her stories in Needle and subsequent ones that appeared in Myung Rang (2004) teem with monstrous desperate women connoting a lack. Chun earned rave reviews for her daring departure from the “urban or middle-class sensibilities that characterized many of the fictional works by [Korean] female writers in the late 1990s” (“Interview”). In fact, her work is clearly distinct from those of her predecessors of the previous decade. According to Yung-Hee Kim, after thirty years of military rule, the 1990s “ushered in a new cultural epoch”; this was especially the case for women writers in that there was an “unparalleled upsurge in [their] creative activities” (10)..1 Intent on expanding the parameters of Korean femininity in the advent of a new era, women writers of the 90s (Kyungsook Shin, Heekyung Eun, Kyungnin Chun, Jiyoung Gong, to name a few) eagerly broached hot button issues in feminism, female sexuality, and gender politics. Parading in their works were a new generation of educated and socially mobile women who, much like their creators, were critically delving into their realities, which were still bound by conventions from the past and eagerly exploring their bodies and their sexual desires.

    Chun, unlike her predecessors, does not take a unilateral approach to feminist issues by precluding herself from the realm of the feminine; rather Chun “defamiliarizes” the female body by highlighting the minutiae of their state of lack or abjection (Kim “Impoverished” 155). In its overabundant portrayal of monstrous women, Needle calls for the readers to fix their critical gaze on Chun’s portrayal, at once realistic and phantasmagoric, of the ravenous, the primitive, and the violence-stained (female) body. In lieu of the urban chic, upwardly-mobile professionals that populated the works of her female precursors is Chun’s tribe of monstrous women whose ugly deformed bodies are the “scarlet letters” telegraphing their outsider status. Some are marked by protruding cheekbones, a third nipple or a bad stutter, while others are hideously obese, hunchbacked, and suffering from amenorrhea. In a word, these denizens of the periphery reify a “lack”; they lack in particular beauty, which is regarded as one true marker of femininity in conventional terms. These women also demonstrate a streak of violence and aggression, and their freakish appetites for rare meat and sex are also chilling common denominators. In the end, what these ungainly, deformed, mummy-esque monstresses violate are the norms governing gender.

    Foucault notes that the monster is a “strange mixture” that violates “laws of nature by mixing or combining aspects of the natural world that according to prevailing rules of internal cohesion (or classifications) ought to be distinct” (qtd. in Taylor 130). Chun’s conception of her female characters in Needle appears to have been in the same vein; Chun expressed her deep affection for her monstrous characters, adding that one of her objectives in creating such characters was to uncover the beauty hidden within what is typically regarded as base and contemptible (“Interview”). She recounted how, in writing the namesake piece “Needle” in particular, she brooded over the boundary that ostensibly separates the “beautiful” and the “unseemly,” ultimately concluding that the two cannot be distinctly demarcated.

    “Needle” relays the story of Youngsook Park, who is a female tattoo artist. As the story progresses, the readers learn that her mother has committed suicide after allegedly murdering a Buddhist monk, presumed to be her paramour. Her neighbor is an effeminate man who wants to fill his body with tattoos of armaments. Almost all of the characters of “Needle,” be they male or female, inhabit the dark underbelly of society alongside Youngsook, whose illegitimacy is compounded by her loathsome “unfeminine” appearance, by her lack of patriarchal parentage, and by her association to tattoos, which Korean society regards as a deviance. Youngsook’s transgression as a feminine grotesque does not lend her subversive potential and only serves to relegate her to negative stereotypes of aberrant femininity.

    The story begins with Youngsook tattooing a great big spider up high on a male client’s thigh. Although a magnificent butterfly is fluttering its kaleidoscopic wings over his belly button, and a sturdy bamboo stalk pillars his forearm (11), the man still covets the spider’s hard integument, hoping that the tattoo will be his talisman, a source of virility and power. Youngsook notes that even though the needle is fragile and is easily broken, it can also be a great weapon were she to wield it as such. Remarking that getting tattooed makes a man extremely horny, he adds that Youngsook should be thankful that she is ugly, obese, and thus undesirable, as it is her monstrous appearance that keeps her safe from becoming a “gynecological disaster area” (13). Dispassionately acknowledging what the man says about her “pronounced cheekbones, her hunchbacked body with dangling flaps of body fat, and an unpleasant voice that makes people grimace” (13), Youngsook takes pride instead in her ability to create beauty via her tattoos, which remain untouched by the hideousness of her body. When the spider tattoo is completed, Youngsook sates her sexually deprived and unloved body with meat, cooked rare.

    Two aspects of this opening passage deserve further discussion. Firstly, as Youngsook narrates in detail the intricate process of her tattoo work, she, as an artiste, commands authority over her “canvas.” In objectifying her male client as a clean parchment to showcase her artistic mastery and expression, Youngsook is thus able to dismiss the man’s disdain of her monstrous body. Emancipated from the dispraising male gaze, which endeavors to define her body by (and confine it within) the parameters of female normativity, Youngsook inverts the conventional gender hierarchy. She not only climaxes to an orgasmic high after the first prick of the tattoo needle, which releases the first virginal dewdrop of blood (14), but she also imagines herself a venomous spider poised to attack the prey that has become entangled in her web. The man is a pliant butterfly whose wings have become tattered in vain attempts to escape (15).

    The subversion of the gender hierarchy is short-lived as almost immediately, the male gaze (and along with it, male authority) is restored. Emblazoned with his spider talisman, the male client enunciates in his reinforced virility with the remark that his spider will surely “drive the chicks wild” (15). Contrasted with the man’s vigorous enthusiasm, Youngsook is overcome with feelings of prostration; in a word, he is the one fortified by a hard integumental shield, while she returns to a state of vulnerability. Such an exchange almost becomes formulaic in that the tattoo work rebirths the masculinity of her clients (which ensures their re-entry into normative society), whereas Youngsook becomes enervated by the process. Youngsook narrates of other clients who requested to have knives, swords, and toothy tigers etched into their biceps, penis, and chests, all leaving triumphantly with a swagger. Repeatedly, an enfeebled Youngsook is reinscribed into the periphery by her association with the unlawful world of tattoos. Conversely, her male clients appear untouched by the deviancy of the tattoo and are even restored of the easy confidence of hegemonic masculinity.

    Midway through the narrative, Youngsook receives a visit from Detective Moon, emblematizing patriarchal law, who unexpectedly appears at Youngsook’s door and brusquely demands answers about her mother’s whereabouts. Accused of killing her Buddhist monk lover, Youngsook’s mother is another monstrous woman rendered so by her unlawful act of murder, and we can easily infer that she will be disciplined and punished by the patriarchal order once she is placed under police custody.

    If Youngsook reaps power from her indifference to being placed outside the realm of male desire, she re-conscribes herself within the very patriarchal order she destabilizes by reinserting (sexual) desire into her interaction with the male body. Because her monstrosity does not allow her body to be read as desirable, Youngsook sates her own carnal desires by participating in the ritualistic act of consuming blood-dripping meat, and thereby transposing her own carnivorous desires onto the man’s sexually unresponsive body. In so doing, Youngsook is not only able to produce desire where it was previously absent, but also to obscure the sexual undesirability of her deformed body (Oh 301, Goh 340, Lee 156).This convergence of desires is made all the more clear when the physically monstrous Youngsook and her ethically monstrous mother are juxtaposed over the image of a platter of uncooked raw meat, for as Youngsook looks over fleshy slices of gleaming red meat neatly displayed at the meat counter in the neighborhood market, she imagines not only her mother engaged in an adulterous sexual liaison with her Buddhist priest lover, but also of herself bloodstaining the priest’s smooth head with Maori tribal tattoos. This visceral imagining provides the potential for the dissolution of the gender binary as her desire is placed onto his body; nevertheless, it is difficult to dismiss the fact that Youngsook’s misshapen body is the singular characteristic that defines her and in the end, she cannot completely imagine away her “lack,” which always returns to alienate her and confine her to isolation. Important to note here is that Youngsook’s ravenous appetite for meat only serves to invoke the binary world of predator and prey. It unfortunately does not afford for Youngsook’s entry into the sphere of the predators as her gruesome appetite for rare meat merely reinforces the grotesquery of Youngsook’s behavior.

    As observed above, Chun attempts to overlap Youngsook (and her story) with that of her mother’s. I maintain that this is problematic in that such a connection reinforces the notion that monstrosity is an “inherited legacy” that is passed on from mother to daughter. Youngsook’s mother, who, unlike her daughter, uses her set of needles in a more “conventional” way as a seamstress, is positioned as the body maternal, representing “traditional” femininity as she is associated with not only the classical beauty of the traditional Korean dresses she creates but also the conventional “female” task of needlework. Although her mother is later absolved by the police of murdering the Buddhist monk whom she was supporting and taking care of, Youngsook learns that her mother has killed herself. Upon hearing of her mother’s suicide, Youngsook is immediately reminded of her mother’s beautiful soft white hands serving jade droplets of green tea to the monk as the two shared in a tranquil tea ceremony (16). Youngsook lays claims her mother’s needle set as a legacy, hoping to use her mother’s needles in her tattoo jobs. But this is rendered impossible as she discovers that the mother has destroyed all of her needles by cutting off all of their tips. The discovery of the ruined needles returns Youngsook in memory to a time when her mother once said that sneaking needle tips into one’s drink is a foolproof way of killing someone without ever inflicting an external wound. So the mother’s “monstrosity” as murderess is re-instated through a surreptitious slaughtering of the male body, and the daughter is left holding this matrilineal legacy of monstrosity.2 In Chun’s rendering of this mother-daughter relationship, not only does the monstrosity of the mother pass on to her daughter, but the mother also functions as an agent of patriarchy when she destroys her needles so that her daughter will be kept from using this emblem of femininity in the unconventional act of tattoo artistry.

    If Youngsook’s monstrous appearance leads to her alienation, her neighbor’s effete (and rather beautiful) features and body not only set him apart but also makes him susceptible to sexual victimization at the hands of an army buddy. This young man, whose beauty and purity rivals that of a “bowl of piping hot rice, white with a glossy sheen” requests that Youngsook emblazon his body with tattoos of armaments and to replace his weakness with the deadly force of the weapons (19). Replying that beautiful bodies do not need tattoos, she warns that the results will be irreversible, much like a virgin’s loss of her hymen. Upon his insistence, Youngsook etches into her neighbor’s chest his first tattoo – a needle, the “most powerful weapon of all,” she remarks (33). The neighbor’s chest is now adorned with the needle which resembles a young girl’s vagina, or a crevice that could absorb the universe (33). Again, the possibility of dissolving the gender binary is addressed by this gesture and along these lines, it is important to acknowledge that the tattoo of the needle is somewhat different from those of weapons and tigers she drew on the bodies of other men. Throughout the story, the needle is strongly tied to femininity as it appears as the tool of choice in Youngsook’s tattoo work and her mother’s needlework; its association to femininity is complete when Youngsook likens it to a “young girl’s vagina.” Nevertheless, as was the case with all of Youngsook’s other male clients, the needle tattoo does not align its wearer to femininity (or to criminality) but instead allows him to extricate himself of the traces of femininity which previously rendered him vulnerable to sexual abuse; armed with the hard integument afforded him by the tattoo, the restoration of his masculinity is also achieved.

    In “Needle,” Chun certainly aspires to addresses the issue of the binary and does imagine the possibility of a collapse between the two oppositions – male/female, beauty/ ugliness, powerful/powerless, and so on. Still, Chun’s endeavors, as I have tried to demonstrate above, fall short; if Youngsook’s monstrosity begets her alienation, it is, for her male counterparts, the tattoo that acts as a physical marker of their alienation.3 In the case of Chun’s male characters in “Needle,” what is initially an ugly and painful scar invests its wearer with power and beauty. But unlike the virgin who breaks her hymen and is then condemned by patriarchy as a defiled and disorderly body, the male body is able to reinterpret this “defilement” and use it to advantage. Consequently, the ability to see his tattoo as a source of power and beauty is what gives Youngsook’s male clients the possibility of reconfiguring the power structure altogether and to rejoin society (albeit partially) under normative terms. What I find problematic is how Chun treats Youngsook’s ‘tattoo’– that is, her monstrous body. In the story, Youngsook transforms and completes one man’s tattoos so that they become an emblem of masculinity. And yet, Youngsook’s tattoos are not as easy to modify; if her male clients’ “monstrosity” is regenerative and allow them to transgress and to destabilize the norm, Youngsook’s “monstrosity” is divested of such subversive potential. Youngsook is still very much trapped within the gender conventions that govern her body and deem it monstrous. Moreover, Youngsook’s prowess with the tattoo needle may enhance the masculine vitality of her male clients, but it is what ensures her permanent abode in the periphery. In the end, Youngsook’s power is symbolic and in name only as she has the limited power of suffusing others with power; in tattooing her neighbor with a needle, she may be dreaming of transgression but it is wishful thinking at best as Youngsook is simply reduced to a tool that facilitates achievement of male agency. Even the significance of the mother-daughter overlap (and with it, the delicate needle’s rise to the most stalwart weapon) is diminished as the mother turns out to be a murderer – a moral monster – who is, by her suicide, forever exiled to the periphery of society.

    The second short story “Breath” features a male protagonist named Daechang; he takes the helm over the narrative and also employs his masculine authority to demarcate the two women in his life, the meat-eating grandmother and the vegetarian Miyeon, into the desirable good subject (who participates in the continuation of patriarchal hegemony) and the undesirable bad subject who deigns to (but ultimately fails to) overthrow the dominant discourse of gender. As with “Needle,” the plot is quite simple: Daechang, who works at the cattle market in Majang district, wants to marry his lover Miyeon, but he must first get his grandmother’s permission. He tries to appease the old woman by procuring for her the calf embryo still ensconced in its mother’s womb, a delicacy very hard to come by. In order to obtain this rare treat, he gets embroiled in an illegal operation of dressing cow’s head meat, narrowly escapes the police, and safely returns to Miyeon’s arms, waiting to hold him in a sexual embrace. The crux of this story is the contrast that Daechang establishes between his lover, who serves to enhance his masculinity, and his browbeating grandmother, who threatens to emasculate him.

    The grandmother has been a surrogate mother to Daechang since his early childhood after his parents’ accidental death. Daechang, however, skews her maternal body and voids it of maternal intimacy and nurturance; to Daechang, his grandmother is a carnivorous monster thwarting his plans of wedded bliss with Miyeon.4 The grandmother is monstrous because she is thoroughly immune to “refeminization”; dried up and old, she is a cunning predator who preys upon the weak. Daechang still remembers the chills going down his spine as he watched her devour fresh (and uncooked) marrow after only wiping away the blood (37). This ancient woman still sprouts black wiry hair on her head, an anomaly that Daechang attributes to her diabolic witchery as well as her ravenous consumption of animal flesh (36). To Daechang, she is an old witch who, unlike the one in fairy tales that locks up Hansel and Gretel in a house of gingerbread, imprisons him in a reeking cage of animal flesh. She is also the witch of Macbeth, who spellbinds him with a mysterious brew of salamander eyeballs, chicken blood, and bat marrow. As he goes to fetch soy sauce for the witch’s brew, Daechang sees his face, full of fear, reflecting back at him from the large vat, which he quickly erases with a ladle. He then greedily devours the marrow soup, as if possessed. As he drains the last drop of soup from his bowl, Daechang expresses resentment and fear towards the witchery and the gluttony of his grandmother, which he says reduces him to a castrated bull (38-9).

    Miyeon, on the other hand, is the Korean equivalent of the Victorian “angel in the house.” As the epitome of conventional femininity, she starts off her day with housework and strives to make Daechang the king of his castle. Though she is 3 years older than Daechang, at 34, she still possesses the timidity and purity of a young girl, and simply by this girlish act of slightly dropping her long black lashes, she is able to rouse Daechang’s sexual desires. Reifying conventional definitions of femininity, Miyeon is given permission to become the body maternal. Not only does Daechang imagine her as the mother of his children, he himself finds peace and tranquility in her arms as she clasps him in a motherly embrace to calm him after he narrowly escapes from the police raid of the Majang district. As the two shed their clothes and their bodies become entangled, Daechang remarks that he can detect a faint smell of the grassy knoll from Miyeon’s breasts and ponders if he can exist as a plant taking in, not the stench of meat associated with his monstrous un-motherly grandmother, but the scent of the forest breeze softly blowing from Miyeon’s body. In a word, Miyeon comes to personify “Mother Nature,” the life-affirming and nurturing force which provides fertile grounds upon which Daechang can reinvigorate his masculinity. The story ends with the two making love as Daechang imagines little leaves sprouting from their entwined bodies and he sees a baby calf with large gentle eyes taking one step then another to graze on the grass.

    As previously noted, Daechang bifurcates the image of women, and the polar ends of the spectrum are occupied by Daechang’s grandmother and his lover, Miyeon. The meat-eating violence of the grandmother (who lacks maternal tenderness) is regarded as perverse, while the vegetarian docility of Miyeon (who abounds in not only maternal affection but also sexual allure) is desirable. Consequently, the male discourse succeeds in trapping Daechang’s two women, both rivaling for his undivided attention, in a dichotomous division of womanhood. As a result, neither the “monstrous” grandmother nor the angelic Miyeon is able to subvert the gender norm but is re-incarcerated in its clutches. And while the grandmother may partly subvert the norm via her (partial) authority over the male body, her body, which clearly lacks femininity, seemingly connotes that femininity is incompatible with power, for after all, the ending implies that, with or without his grandmother’s approval, Daechang will get his wish of marrying Miyeon. By the close of the story, the grandmother’s monstrous body is entirely erased from the narrative, and the image of womanhood that we are left with is that of Miyeon, the vegetarian woman who bolsters patriarchal authority. Miyeon’s rise to primacy also suggests the reestablishment of the “home,” which reinscribes women to the domestic.

    Many feminists have observed that the feminine grotesque is “traditionally aimed at tearing down established boundaries and hierarchies from the perspective of the disempowered” (Mey 83). Renee Heberle writes that monstrous women “embody the worst of contemporary nightmares about women’s potential for disorderliness” (qtd. in Taylor 149). Likewise, Toril Moi observes that “the monster woman is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell – in short, a woman who rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her” (58). Through their transgressions, Chun’s monstrous women refuse to submit to social conventions and are to some extent able to lay bare the oppressive forces of gender normativity. One must still question, in the end, what story has been told by Chun’s monstrous women? Do they ever escape the ignominy of being society’s “nightmares”? And if they dare dream of escape, is the vegetarian woman the only option by which this escape can be achieved? When all is said and done, Chun’s grotesque band of monstresses not only fail miserably to destabilize the norms governing gender but even become (unwittingly perhaps) complicit in the maintenance of patriarchal ideology by ultimately submitting to an oppressive system that requires them to acquiesce to their lot at the margins. Ultimately, tattoo artist Youngsook, her murderous mother, Daechang’s ornery grandmother, and even the desirable Miyeon neither step across nor express a wish to move beyond their confines. While the monster women who occupy the pages of Chun’s “Needle,” and “Breath” may be unsuccessful in gratifying our feminist sensibilities, perhaps their example is enough for now, in that they can raise awareness of women’s marginalized positions as society’s “freaks” and with it “facilitate critical questioning and analysis that has the potential to promote new, anti-normalizing modes of thought” regarding gender (Taylor 149).

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  • 2. Chun Woon-young 2001 Interview by Ji-yeon Baek. google
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  • 15. Taylor Dianna (2010) “Monstrous Women.” [PhaenEx] Vol.5 P.125-51 google
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