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me - I Didn’t Dream of Dragons

13th January 2009

8:35 pm - I Didn’t Dream of Dragons

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From:bossymarmalade
Date: 14th January 2009 03:44 am (UTC)
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No one that I know of has borrowed Arthur and Lancelot to turn them into part of the army that helps Rama defeat Ravan.

... but now I really want to. *g*

More seriously, I am kind of sitting her stunned right now at how much of this I read and thought, yes, oh my god, YES. Growing up in Trinidad reading British stories and worldviews affected my own abilities and language profoundly; when I wrote stories as a girl, all of my characters were white. I would have thought it ludicrous to do anything else.

I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

This is absolutely it. The "we're all people!" cry looks innocuous or even admirable at first glance, but the way it's distilled in practise is more like "even foreigners can act like ordinary Americans!" -- with 'white' standing in for 'ordinary', of course.

I'm glad you wrote out your feelings about this. I found so much here to identify with, and considering how complex and painful it's been for me to pinpoint and deal with my postcolonial legacy, I appreciate that's you've laid it all out so eloquently.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:32 am (UTC)
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I am so over Arthur that if I saw him show up in non-Eurocentric anything I would probably have to kill somebody. :)

Growing up in Trinidad reading British stories and worldviews affected my own abilities and language profoundly

I know, right? And it is very much a problem of the privileged, but going to an English medium school and being upper class means that I am not fluent enough to be able to write fiction in my mother tongues. I certainly lay firm claim to Indian English, but I struggle with representing the multi-lingual part of my world.

I'm glad this made sense to you. I hate being emotional. :)
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From:shewhohashope
Date: 14th January 2009 03:50 am (UTC)
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This is wonderful. All of it.

I grew up on and loved Enid Blyton (I still do, in a weird way), and while I probably found it more immediately problematic than most white, British kids, it took a while before I realised all the stories I wrote had white characters. Not that I wrote much, then or now.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
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I consider myself lucky that my mom brought me up to think of Enid Blyton as trash, so I was biased towards critiquing her, but guess what the odds are of finding her in an Indian bookstore vs, say, Octavian Nothing?
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From:emily_shore
Date: 14th January 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
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Really, really insightful post. Thank you.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:33 am (UTC)
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You're welcome.
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From:skywardprodigal
Date: 14th January 2009 04:29 am (UTC)
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I do not have enough yes in me, and my mother tongue is broken. So even oui is borrowed and reclaimed from successful attempts at erasure.

So much of this is so very true. I love all of it. Every word, every comma, every period. YES.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:35 am (UTC)
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and my mother tongue is broken

Ohhoney. At least there is this legacy, that we can find strangers all over the world who have survived this together, and can understand.
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From:heyiya
Date: 14th January 2009 04:36 am (UTC)
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You just pinned down exactly (albeit from a perspective I was more educated than born to) the whole meme of 'writing the Other' that goes around bothers me. It's precisely multiculturalism, where the 'multi' always modifies a hegemonic model of culture that here is precisely the idea of the 'unique individual.' Which doesn't get less culturally specific because it's the stock in trade of the novelist, given that the history of the novel and the history of colonialism are not exactly separable.

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From:heyiya
Date: 14th January 2009 04:38 am (UTC)
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I feel like a bit of a dick, gendered choice of noun quite purposeful, for responding to this with theorywords. But, um, I don't know how else?
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From:Avalon's Willow [blogspot.com]
Date: 14th January 2009 05:05 am (UTC)
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Linked to you here:
http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/2009/01/open-letter-to-elizabeth-bear.html
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From:minim_calibre
Date: 14th January 2009 05:15 am (UTC)
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Thank you, for trusting us with your words, which are much-needed ones in this sort of conversation.

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From:mildmannered
Date: 14th January 2009 05:26 am (UTC)
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You know what would be really fucking amazing? would be a book about those blue and green wizards, in those lands to the East. Which were certainly mapped, if not by anyone in Gondor.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:49 pm (UTC)
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I used to imagine what might happen over there. But since Gandalf and Elbereth and Eru never seemed to care about us over there, I stopped too.
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From:sparkymonster
Date: 14th January 2009 05:30 am (UTC)
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I'm not coherent yet, but oh god this is an AMAZING post/screed/story. Just amazing. I need to come back to this tomorrow and think more.

Seriously. Thank you for sharing
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for listening. :)
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From:yasaman
Date: 14th January 2009 05:59 am (UTC)
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Great post, and thanks for the food for thought. And word on trying to find oneself in the unmapped lands of the East. And more word on growing up with half a tongue. I'm just now trying to reclaim mine, and oh my God, it is way more of an uphill struggle than I ever expected with my mother tongue, but that's beside the point.

And wow, your points about Blood and Iron bring up some things I had never thought of. You're right, it is problematic. I confess, I saw the Promethean Age series world as more of an American Gods type of world, so the potential appropriation issues did not at all occur to me.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:52 pm (UTC)
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Sisters in solidarity, yo! :)

I have different problems with American Gods (and Neil Gaiman in general) than I do with Blood and Iron. I still plan to read the full Promethian Age series because I enjoyed the writing quite a bit, but I'll try to do a separate post sometime on the issues that bother me.
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From:fire_fly
Date: 14th January 2009 06:56 am (UTC)
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This is fantastic.

Part of the reason I stopped reading fantasy novels is because of their endless repetition of social structures from mediaeval Europe (or highly exoticised versions of social structures of the Middle East and Asia), with contemporary morality superimposed on them. After some teenage enthusiasm, I found they just weren't speaking to me.

Fantasy seems like the construct of a highly privileged society, able to contemplate poverty and a lack of technology from a distance. It seems based on a very Orientalist division of time into dichotomies of civilisation/barbarism, and a projection of the timelessness and traditionalism that tinted the lens of the Orientalist gaze.

I figured out that I, and people like me and my family, figure in these stories exactly as Orientalism imagines us to be, while white people figure as heroes supported by the myths of white pioneering individualism and tinged with the traditionalism and timelessness of exotified societies only to the extent that it's a romantic patina on an otherwise Western trope. They're a bit exotic, but not really like the rest of them, which is why they're interesting (as Middle Earth declines, our heroes are the only ones who can pave the way for a new age).

Can there ever be such a thing as a postcolonial high fantasy? I'm not sure.

As you say, it takes more than putting brown skin on an American youth and pushing them through a quest. There was a time when I wanted to write something like this, but I realised too late that writing fiction is not something I'm suited to, so my ideas will just have to find some other ground to settle in.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
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Ok, this. YES.

I don't think I've specifically made the leap from Orientalism to European fantasy, but you are abolutely right re: the patina of timelessness aspect, and how the heroes then become the Honkies of the Day to save the world.

I had actually made this connection in regards to classical ballet's treatment of women, which is a paper I might throw up here later, if only to show how insidicous and pervasive cultural appropriation has been.

Can there ever be such a thing as a postcolonial high fantasy? I'm not sure.

Such a good question. I can't see myself ever thinking of writing a Save the World book, because my ego just cannot extend so far as to imagine that any one group or person could ever encompass everybody. I mean, there will always be lands and peoples beyond, right?
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From:yeloson
Date: 14th January 2009 08:16 am (UTC)
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I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

This. It's never been about us being us, it's about us not being them.

And yes on the way in which mythology is also made eurocentric, and we're supposed to do cartwheels on being included.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as I've been trying for the life of me to brainstorm a people of color focal urban fantasy setting, and thinking about how broken our language of mythology is in the face of cultural genocide.
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From:the-willow.insanejournal.com
Date: 14th January 2009 09:46 am (UTC)
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As I've been trying for the life of me to brainstorm a people of color focal urban fantasy setting

Gah, you too? I'm currently confronting an internal bias that says the Caribbean simply cannot be the center of the world (in that whole, saving the world from evil sense).
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From:artaxastra
Date: 14th January 2009 12:06 pm (UTC)
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Which I think brings me to my quandary -- is it better to try to write Indian characters, knowing that as a white American I will be de facto presenting a false or incomplete picture, or to not write them at all? My editor, who is an Indian woman, says it's better to go ahead and write them, and that even with some flaws that it's a vast improvement to have strong and sympathetic Indian characters than have India vanish off the map. (In my latest book, the one that comes out next year, the hero's dead first wife was Indian, and she appears in several flashback sequences.) Her take on it is that I also write ancient Persians, when I am not myself Iranian, Egyptians when I am not Egyptian, Greeks when I am not Greek, Turks when I am not Turkish, etc, and that writing a sympathetic character who is Indian isn't nearly as problematic as it would be to make her white instead to avoid having her be Indian.

Which I think leads to the other problem -- people being afraid to write characters from a culture other than their own, or especially from a background that's controversial. In PotC fandom this usually takes the form of the Caribbean being entirely populated by white people. Fans are scared to write black characters for fear of offending, so all the black characters simply disappear. "I can't write Tia Dalma," they say. Which means that the black characters in canon vanish. I guess my take on it is that it's better to go ahead and write the black characters in canon and do the best I can with it rather than to have them disappear. I think Tia Dalma is a terribly interesting character, and I rather ship her and Jack. So is there something inherently wrong about me writing that? It kind of makes me nervous to say I shouldn't ship an interracial relationship because I'm not qualified to write about it, something that interestingly enough I've heard from white fans but not from black.

So what's your take on it? You know me and my writing. Is it better, in this upcoming book, to have one of the hero's primary love interests be an Indian woman, or is that problematic? Or is that a question you can't answer without reading it? (And if you'd like to read it, I'd be grateful for your thoughts....)
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From:spiralsheep
Date: 14th January 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
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Fans are scared to write black characters for fear of offending, so all the black characters simply disappear.

I don't believe that's the primary reason why many white writers choose (consciously or not) to preferentially write white chracters. I also think "fear of offending" is a way of white people blaming their actual "fear of being critiqued on race issues" onto non-white people, i.e. shifting the blame for the lack of non-white representation away from the (majority of) white writers (in PotC fandom in your example) who're responsible for what they write and onto the (minority of) non-white readers.
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From:spiralsheep
Date: 14th January 2009 12:19 pm (UTC)
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Great post. Thank you.
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From:oyceter
Date: 14th January 2009 01:09 pm (UTC)
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Yes, yes, yes, and thank you.

And even when we do have genres that have a ton of "appropriation" of white culture like my most beloved manga, it doesn't feel like appropriation, it feels like assimilation, because right now, hundreds of manga series can be written about the Christian notion of heaven and hell or include Norse mythology and such, but they aren't being consumed to the point in which they are creating the norm instead of reacting to it.

(Also, do not mean to nitpick, but I learned last year that there actually is a Bengalese SF tradition. But of course, because of the way the flow of cultures work and the resources necessary for the promotion and maintenance of a publishing community, it's very buried.)

Mostly though: thank you.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I think there are really interesting things to be said about media produced that uses White culture, like manga, and how it is different (although I am sure it would be useful to us as POC writers to critique its problems as well). Not knowing anything about it, I will wait to read the thoughts of my betters on it (hint hint)

Bengali SF... d'oh. Hello India is a vast country with so many languages that I am more familiar with French phrases than some of yours. :)
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From:veejane
Date: 14th January 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)
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I'm pleased to see you put this out (unlocked, etc.). This is great! The details of "where my memes come from" are vivid, and make your point very well. I hope a great many people read it, and are convinced.
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
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I... was a little too reactive to give in to my normal tendency to lock stuff. Glad it made sense to you.
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From:coffeeandink
Date: 14th January 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
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This is terrific. Thank you for putting it up.
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From:cryptoxin
Date: 14th January 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
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This is such a powerful post; thank you for writing it.
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From:daegaer
Date: 14th January 2009 01:57 pm (UTC)
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This is really brilliant, thank you!
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From:matociquala
Date: 14th January 2009 02:04 pm (UTC)
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I followed you home.

I think this is an excellent essay.

One of the things I was trying to do with Kelpie, the Merlin, and Kadiska in particular, was talk about cultural appropriation and cultural interchange. The Merlin, coopted into this mythology, winds up rather upsetting the apple cart at the end of the second book. Part of what I wanted to talk about was how cultural preconceptions of How Things Are aren't necessarily so--the idea that the stories we tell ourselves become true is also a horrible trap, and sometimes we need to step outside those stories.

It's becoming evident to me that I didn't do a good enough job on that, however. Maybe next time.

I very much would like, eventually, to write some books set in other parts of that world, showing other aspects of its magic and culture. (A friend of mine wants to bring me to Bangalore to meet her family and possibly write a book set there. If I can ever afford it, I would love to do that.)

The problem being of course that there's a very fine line of cultural appropriation: the last thing I want to do is write a Rudyard Kipling story. Or a story about how what these people need is a honky.

The second PA book includes more African and Australian stories, and throughout the writing I was aware of a constant tension between what I wanted to do, artistically--widen the scope of the world, and make it evident that there was Stuff going on out there that might not enter into the self-absorbed little world of the Celtic and American characters, and the fact that I am a trespasser in those lands. And then there's the issue of bringing out that the real New York (not the TV New York) itself is a multicultural city with all kinds of people in it.

There's a tension: I don't want to write just another romano-celtic story. There are enough of those in the world. But I also don't feel nearly as bad about doing a crappy job with The matter of Britain as I do with The Matter of Australia.

I'm much more comfortable ripping the stitches out of Christianity and rearranging it into a nice patchwork quilt than I would be doing the same thing to any other major world religion. Which--that eggshell treatment--is a form of othering in itself, and I'm pretty sure there are enough Buddhists in the world for it to take care of itself, but there you go.

It's a remarkably intractable problem. I'm not capable of writing children's books in Hindi. My first language is English, and I'm a mongrel white western person. And yet I still want, somehow, to contribute to a just society. I can't figure out what else my life is good for.

(I never meant to imply that writing cross-culturally was easy. It's remarkably hard. I think I said that it's simple, not easy. Sort of like mountain climbing.)

(Edited for bad editing.)

Edited at 2009-01-14 02:16 pm (UTC)
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 08:34 pm (UTC)
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Ok, first off, I'm catching up on comments with this post, so I haven't had the time to look at any of the resultant discussion happening elsewhere.

there was Stuff going on out there that might not enter into the self-absorbed little world of the Celtic and American characters

That interests me. And yeah, you can but try. I mean, I meant it when I said that I liked Blood and Iron quite a bit, mostly because of the women and the conflicted werewolves, but I did resent the Caribbean kelpie. And now you know, and its up to you to use or discard that information as best serves you. :)

And yet I still want, somehow, to contribute to a just society. I can't figure out what else my life is good for.

Ok, I'm going to do something I normally never do online, and get personal. Because I've been reading your LJ for years, and I believe you when you say this.
Bear... it hurts when you talk about your insecurities about writing the Other in a way that gives importance to that over the greater problem of mis-and under-representation of the Other. I've commented on your LJ about this before, and I've tried to be cautious because its your space and you have every right to say what you want in it and if I mind, I can just leave, which is what I do, but I've been hurt by the ways in which you've defended your position or participated in a discussion in the past. I'm just sharing that, for what its worth.
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From:thingswithwings
Date: 14th January 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
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I distrust universalising statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional—they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you.

Beautifully put. This is an excellent post, and I am going to be chewing over it for a while; thank you for writing it.
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From:erzebet
Date: 14th January 2009 02:46 pm (UTC)
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What a glorious post. I have added you as a friend because of it. Thank you.
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From:dragonmyst
Date: 14th January 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
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This is a fascinating post, interesting and thought provoking.

I found this through matociquala. Do you mind if I link it in my lj?
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From:deepad
Date: 14th January 2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
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Go ahead, I'm glad it was useful to you.
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From:idiosyncreant
Date: 14th January 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for sharing your heart and history about this.

I'm having trouble articulating what I mean, but I'll trust you to give me the benefit of the doubt here...though I can't seem to make it not sound stiff and self-congratulating:

My concept of myself as Other, and my ideas of the problems of bringing a home-culture to bear on literature, have been shifted a bit--I hope for the good, and more humility about the advantages in my background.
I really appreciate you taking the time to put your thoughts where others (even strangers) can read them.
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From:kate_nepveu
Date: 14th January 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
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Not only thought-provoking, but beautifully written. Thank you.
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From:kate_nepveu
Date: 28th January 2009 12:51 am (UTC)
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