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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey has been thinking of the hurricane's aftermath on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where she spent much of her childhood, and where her - part of her family still lives.

And she's been thinking of the hurricane's aftermath on her family. Her brother spent a year in prison. Her grandmother sheltered from the storm in a public school and was never able to return home. Her house was unlivable after Katrina, and she was too frail, disoriented and undernourished after the storm to continue living alone.

Natasha Trethewey moved her grandmother to a nursing home near her when she was teaching at Duke University, and then to Atlanta, where Trethewey is a professor at Emory University.

Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Many of the poems were about growing up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia. Her mother was African-American, her father is white. When they divorced, Trethewey lived were mother and, eventually, a stepfather and her younger brother Joe. After her mother and stepfather divorced, her stepfather murdered her mother.

Trethewey's new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Natasha Trethewey, welcome back to FRESH AIR. After your grandmother died in her 90s, you brought her back to her hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, and had her buried at her church. How long after Katrina was this?

Professor NATASHA TRETHEWEY (Emory University; Author, "Beyond Katrina"): This was in 2008, three years after Katrina.

GROSS: What state was the church in?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: The church was still in the process of rebuilding. They weren't using the sanctuary at the time. And so her service had to take place in a small auxiliary building where they often served food, a very low-ceilinged room that was filled up with whatever they were able to salvage from the main sanctuary, so a few pews, some folding chairs. I think they even had a kind of small pulpit to use for the minister.

But the windows all around the sanctuary, the high windows, were still blown out and some boarded up. And so if you were to have driven by it, you would not have though that anything - any services were ever taking place in this building.

GROSS: How did it feel to bring your grandmother back to a place that was still in such a place of - such a state of chaos and disrepair?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: It made me feel like Katrina wasn't over, that for the people there and the people connected to those people, it was still going on, that recovery was taking such a long time. And there was something sort of sad and homely about having to have her final home-going service in that little room rather than in the beautiful sanctuary for which she had sewn the draperies of the baptismal font, the same place that my mother was memorialized.

GROSS: And to bring her body to a place that had been partially destroyed.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Right.

GROSS: You know, it's death and destruction in one ceremony.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Mm-hmm. And even the stranger feeling of not getting to get her back there even whole. I know it sounds odd, but my grandmother had an amputation right before her death. And so she went back without her leg.

GROSS: Did she have diabetes?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: She didn't, which is the strange thing. She didn't have diabetes at all. She just got she had really poor circulation, perhaps from having sat as a drapery seamstress all that time. And she got a wound on her ankle that wouldn't heal, which is kind of like what it feels like on the coast right now.

GROSS: So when you brought your grandma back to Gulfport, Mississippi, her hometown, where you had lived, as well, it was - it just seems like the intersection of so many things that had gone wrong in your family's life since the storm - you know, your grandmother had to die away from her home. The church that she was buried in, in her hometown, was still partially destroyed. And your brother had recently been in prison, and he was allowed out to come view his grandmother, but that was it. He wasn't really allowed to speak with you or your husband or his child or his girlfriend.

So I'd like to talk a little bit about what happened to your brother and how Katrina changed his life.

In the year leading up to Katrina, he'd started to repair rental properties that your great uncle used to own. What were these properties?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: They were several little lots that held shotgun houses, really small shacks that were so tiny that, often, the bathtub was in the kitchen. But they were the kinds of homes that low-income people on the coast could afford.

They rented right up until the storm for about $230 to $250 a month, and we'd had tenants there who'd been there for perhaps 30 years.

GROSS: And then your brother ended up working on them, repairing them. What was his relationship to these homes?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, in the months leading up to the storm, my brother finally began to take over this family business. We'd been hoping for years that he would. My grandmother was getting too old to be able to handle the business of managing these properties and hiring out people to do repairs and collecting rent. So my brother began to do this.

And when he started doing it, he began to really fix them up, you know, fix the roof and add new appliances and carpet and windows. So he was doing that kind of work, and the tenants were really happy that he was fixing up these places that had fallen into disrepair over the last few years.

So this is what he was doing, right up until the hurricane, and he invested a great deal of his savings into being able to fix them up.

GROSS: And he was in the position of soon being able to see some profits from that.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right. He had all but one of them, I think, rented.

GROSS: So what happened after Katrina? Were the homes destroyed?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: They were damaged so badly that the tenants couldn't stay in them. The buildings were really sort of falling down around them. And so they had to leave.

And the buildings, at that point, were torn down by the city because they were blighted. And if you can't afford at the moment to fix them up, then the city will just tear them down and bill you for it.

GROSS: How much do they bill you for tearing down a house?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: A few thousand dollars.

GROSS: So instead of making him money, now your brother was really in debt, because he was billed for all the homes that had to be torn down as a result of Katrina.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right. And then, of course, having to pay the taxes, then, on the vacant land, just to try to hold on, at least, to the land.

GROSS: Okay. So tell us the story of how he was imprisoned.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that it was in a moment of profound despair that my brother, when contacted by someone he'd known a long time and asked to deliver a large amount of cocaine, agreed.

He did it. He made, he told me, about $4,000. And so when the person asked him to do it, he did it again. So he must have done it a couple of times before someone set him up. I think someone who was perhaps trying to make a deal for himself told the police about Joe, and they were waiting for him.

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: And he was caught with four ounces of cocaine on him.

GROSS: And when was this?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, it happened in the spring of 2007, though he didn't tell me about it then. He didn't tell me about it because that was the moment that happy things were going on in my life, and he didn't want to ruin that.

GROSS: By happy things, I'm guessing you mean that's when you won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right. So at the same time that I was winning the prize, he was being arrested.

GROSS: So how did you find out?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He didn't tell me until a year later, when he was about to go to trial, and his lawyer told him that if he didn't call me and ask me to come down there and to speak on his behalf, that he might be in jail a very long time.

GROSS: Did you speak at his trial?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I did.

GROSS: What did you say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, I tried to explain to the judge something about his history. One of the main things I wanted her to know was how good a kid he is, but how tragic his life had been and how different his life was from mine.

You know, I was older when we lost our mother, and I still had my own father. But it was father, my stepfather, who killed our mother. So, at once he lost both of his parents, and he was an 11-year-old boy when it happened.

And the morning that our mother was killed - my brothers had to live with this. But he was waiting at the bus stop, and his father came and got him and took his key and let himself into our apartment. And my brother recalls the last thing my mother said to him, which was: Why did you let him in?

And Joe tried to tell her that wasn't the case, but because of that, I think he's carried that burden of guilt. And then when he went to live with my grandmother, a woman who loved him dearly but could not look at him without seeing the face of the man who killed her daughter, and so it made their relationship very strained. But that's the house he had to grow up in when he lost his parents.

GROSS: We talked about this on your previous visit to FRESH AIR because you'd written a book of poems about your mother's murder, and your stepfather had abused your mother, and then I think it was right after you got out of high school that he murdered her. He shot her twice, in the head and in the neck.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes.

GROSS: So I guess you...

Prof. TRETHEWEY: My brother was there to see that.

GROSS: He actually witnessed it.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes.

GROSS: And then felt guilty because your father - your stepfather had taken your brother's key to get into the house because his - your stepfather tried to kill your mother once before. So she didn't him anywhere near her. They were divorced.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right.

GROSS: So, yeah, it's so interesting to think about how your family history and your brother's family history compare. I mean, your parents, when you were born, it was an interracial marriage: your mother African-American, your father white. Your father was - is a poet and professor. Your mother, at the time, was a social worker.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes.

GROSS: And I don't know what your stepfather did for a living.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He was a Vietnam veteran, and he went to technical college, and so had a business as a repairman, air conditioning and cooling systems. And he also worked as a maintenance man for a facility for kids who were in trouble.

GROSS: Oh. So, you know, your brother grew up in a home where his mother was abused. By the time she was abused, you were a little older, and you'd already had some stability in your life. I guess he really never knew what that kind of stability was like and what a safe home was like.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, actually, the funny thing about it is - and he tries to address some of this in the letters that he wrote to me. Up until the moment that my mother had to run away with him to get out of the house, he thought he had a perfect life. He thought he had two parents who loved him and, you know, a house in the suburbs, and he didn't want for anything.

He'd only had a glimpse of the way that his father could be angry or volatile, just a very small glimpse. And he didn't really know that the abuse was taking place.

GROSS: Did you?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I did. You know, being older, I guess I was more aware, and I could see what was going on. And I'd wake up in the middle of the night when he would stay asleep and hear what was going on.

GROSS: And you protected your brother from that knowledge.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes.

GROSS: How much older are you?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I'm seven years older.

GROSS: That's a lot.

My guest is Natasha Trethewey. Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Natasha Trethewey, and she's a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

When your brother was in prison, he wrote a poem...

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes, he did.

GROSS: ...which you reprint in the book. And I'd like you to read that poem.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I'd be happy to. The poem is called "Cycle."

(Reading) I am named after my father. He's named after his. No disrespect to my grandfather resting. I pronounce my name Joel(ph) instead of Joel. I am nothing like him. Although I am in prison, I'm not him.

GROSS: I like that poem. I like that, you know, I am not him. And I think you must have been surprised that he wrote a poem. I was surprised. I don't know him, but I mean, you're the professional poet. Were you surprised that he wrote a poem in prison?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I was very surprised. He actually wrote a couple. That's the only one that I print in the book, but he was writing letters and meditations and poems when he was in prison. That one was particularly moving to me because it had never occurred to me, and when I was thinking about my own grief and the burden of this history that we share, that he was carrying the added burden of being named the same name as the man who murdered our mother.

GROSS: You wrote a poem about your brother leaving prison. It's called "Benediction." I'd like you to read that for us.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes, I'd be happy to.

(Reading) "Benediction." I thought that when I saw my brother walking through the gates of the prison, he would look like a man entering his life, and he did. He carried a small bag, holding it away from his body, as if he would not touch it, or that it weighed almost nothing.

The clothes he wore seemed to belong to someone else, like hand-me-downs given a child who will one day grow into them. Behind him at the fence, the inmates were waving, someone saying all right now. And then my brother was walking toward us, a few awkward steps at first, until he got it, how to hold up the too-big pants with one hand, and in the other, carry everything else he had.

GROSS: Was there anything that helped your brother get through his time in prison?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, the thing that really helped him get through was that he had a kind of faith in justice. I mean, my brother's not a religious person, really, either, but he could have faith in human beings to do the just thing.

He also told me that he got through by writing, knowing that he was contributing to this project, that his words would matter, and his story.

GROSS: To what project, your book?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's right.

GROSS: Is that why he wrote?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I told him that I was working on the book, and that I needed to know as much about his experience as I could. And so he started writing some things that he thought would be useful for me, but then, because he was doing that, he started writing these other things, as well, like poetry, that he did not think would have anything to do with what I was writing.

And he didn't know that nor did I, at the time, that I would use anything directly written by him. So once he got into the habit of trying to write things to me about his past or what he remembered of our family from when he was growing up, he also, on the other hand, started writing poems and doing things for himself that helped to get him through. And, of course, they became things that I do use in the book.

GROSS: So it's nice that this book was kind of a collaborative project with your brother, even though you were physically separated.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: Is he still writing?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He is still writing. He was given a lovely journal from a good friend of mine as a get-out-of-prison gift, and so since then, he's been writing his thoughts in it. And I'm trying to encourage him to, you know, maybe let some of us see what he's writing. But he hasn't done that yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. What is he doing now?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: He is looking for work, seeing his parole officer, taking classes at the community college toward his GED. It's been hard for him to find work. You know, he's got to check the box that says he was a convicted felon.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey. Her new book of poetry and prose is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast." It's about the aftermath of the hurricane on her family's home town and on her family.

Her younger brother, Joe lost all of his sources of income after the hurricane. In return for $4,000, he agreed to transport and deliver several ounces of cocaine for someone he knew for a long time. Then he did it again and ended up spending over a year in prison. He kept his arrest a secret from her until he was ready to come to trial.

During the first year that you were a Pulitzer Prize winner and you were getting, you know, more attention than you were used to, once you found out about your brother's incarceration did you try to like, keep that quiet while being interviewed? Did you try not to call attention to it?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, I did. I worried very much about whether or not people would judge my brother for that. And even when I started writing this book, or writing at least the finishing, the second half when everything changed, when I found out that he was going to prison, I had a hard time writing it because I felt that I needed to explain to someone, to this imaginary reader, the entire story - from the moment he was born - so that people would empathize with him. And so that really kept me from being able to write for a long time.

I don't worry about that as much now. I think that there are so many people who have difficult stories like this in families, and that people are not simply waiting to sit in judgment, but instead are open to trying - understand how people feel despair and pushed to make difficult decisions that may not be the best ones.

GROSS: So what convinced you to tell his story in your book?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, it took so long for me to be able to see that telling his story would be useful, not only to give voice to his own experience, but actually, as a way of allowing his story to speak for the countless people whose stories aren't being told. My fear was that he would be judged and that people would simply think well, you know, this is a drug dealer, this is just who this guy is. And I even said, I said this to my agent and I said this to my editor, and finally, one of them said to me, you're trying to convince people who can't be convinced. And then the people who are going to think he's just a drug dealer aren't going to be changed by anything you have to say, nor are they going to read the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TRETHEWEY: That's what they told me. And once I felt a little freer, that I didn't have to explain over and over again what a good guy he is and that he hadn't had this happen and this happen and this happen he never would've done this. But it was really difficult. I even think he worried about it. And I think he's so happy and so relieved now that it's not a secret, that the story is out, that people already know before they ever meet him, so that he doesn't have to try to, you know, skirt around any details of his life or what he -when people ask him what do you do or, you know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey and her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

I'm just thinking that at the same time you won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007, your brother was arrested for carrying cocaine - carrying it for somebody else, but carrying it. And it's a kind of thing where like it's so parallel that you wouldn't write that in a story because it would seem contrived.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Right.

GROSS: I just wonder what you make of the simultaneity or near simultaneity of that, and what it has to say about your lives.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, oddly enough, before I knew about that, I kept thinking about another bit of simultaneity, and that was that 10 days shy of my mother's 41st birthday she was murdered. And 10 days shy of my 41st birthday I won the Pulitzer. So I was very mindful of that strange coincidence that, you know, in this point in both of our lives this is I what we've come to. So a year later, when I found out that my brother had gotten arrested, it was in many ways, another ripple or echo of this family story.

I mean, you know, people think of prison as social death. So whereas my mother was literally dead, my brother was about to enter into a kind of social death at the exact moment that I was having a resurrection of sorts. And I am the kind of person that's always sort of putting these things together and attaching meaning and extracting things from them, so this was so huge in my mind because, you know, my name is Natasha, which means, you know, it's the diminutive in Russian of Natalia, which mean Christmas child but it's also the diminutive of Anastasia, from the Greek, which means resurrection. And so there I was seeing myself as the resurrection child and, you know, my mother and my brother, quite the opposite of that.

You're right when you say, you know, if you were to write it, it would seem too contrived and yet, indeed, it seems to have been a pattern already in my life.

GROSS: So does it make you guilty that you got the Pulitzer at exactly the time in your life that your mother was murdered and you got the Pulitzer at the same time your brother was arrested? Do you feel like it's just, you know, unfair that like, I'm not even sure...

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I think I do feel a good measure of guilt. I've carried with me a lot of survivor's guilt, I think, and the coincidence of what happened to me before my 41st birthday and mother's 41st birthday really highlights that for me. And with my brother, I think I, I definitely feel that. It seems so unfair to me that you could come from the same household and yet have such dramatically different lives.

GROSS: But you didn't quite come from the same household.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: No, it's true. We didn't. I know - that's right. I guess I feel guilty that I couldn't protect from it. When she died, you know, because I was seven years older than him, my brother began to look to me as a kind of a surrogate mother. I was the one that he clung to in that way. And yet, I couldn't mother him or protect him in the way in which I could have. And when he was in prison, I think that was really so difficult and yet, you know, I'm always looking back at the failures. And for me, one of my failures during that time, was the kind of responses that I gave to him.

I mean my brother was writing to me. He would call and, you know, I would never miss a phone call. I'd do everything I can - I could to be there for a phone call, if he needed anything I would send it. You know, along with his girlfriend Aisha, I worked tirelessly calling and emailing the commissioner of prisons in the state of Mississippi and other people in the office, you know, to get my brother released and to have him moved to the facility we wanted him to be in so that he could be close to family. All that kind of leg work, you know, I was willing to do. But what I never once did was write him a letter. And so...

GROSS: That seems so odd. I mean you're a writer.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I know.

GROSS: He started writing when he was in prison. Why didn't you write him?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Terry, I do not know. And once it hit me, it felt like the worst betrayal ever. And one of the first things I did when he was out was to sit him down and apologize for it. And he, you know, not once when he was there did he, you know, ask me to. And I know now that it probably hurt him deeply and I don't know why it didn't occur to me. It didn't occur to me at all.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Natasha Trethewey. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for poetry. Her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey and her new book is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

You grew up fearing hurricanes. You were three when Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast and that was a very destructive hurricane, though not as destructive as Katrina. What are your memories as a three-year-old of Camille?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: What I remember and I think I remember this, you know, sometimes we have memories that are given to us because the stories have been told so often in families. But it seems so vivid to me the storm hitting us and rain pouring in through the roof and my mother and father and grandmother and uncle running from room to room trying to catch as much water as possible with pots and the hurricane lamps lit. My mother and grandmother, sort of terrified and praying out loud as they rain through the hallways. And then I remember just sort of seeing the house the next day and the destruction at the church that was across the street.

GROSS: You know, you describe in your book what it was like as a child every year to see, to turn on the TV and see footage of Hurricane Camille and how frightening it was to you. And it made me think about all the children growing up now in the Gulf, who for the last five years, you know, first they witness Katrina and then every year they watch it again on television.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And how disturbing that must be to relive it every year.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yeah. You know, it's as if that what is supposed to keep you safe is this imagery that you have to look at again and again. And what I've been wondering is, if the children of Katrina will respond differently to the threat of natural disaster than those of us who were the children of Camille. I mean so many people who managed to ride out Camille and with their homes, for the most part, intact, had a kind of fearlessness when Katrina was bearing down. You know, my grandmother was one of them, thinking that Camille was the worst thing that could've happened to us, so why be afraid of this hurricane that's coming? And yet, it was worse.

GROSS: You know, in your book, "Beyond Katrina," you write that, you know, your grandmother was a God-fearing woman and when Hurricane Camille destroyed the church across the street but only partially destroyed your grandmother's home, she took that as a message - what was the message from God that she interpreted?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, she felt that she had been spared and having been spared, had a greater call to duty. And so began to do as much as she could for the church. For example, making the draperies, these huge red velvet draperies for the baptismal font. She also allowed the church to park its bus in her driveway. The church didn't have its own driveway. She became even more devoted because she thought she had been spared.

GROSS: Is that the church she was buried in?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes.

GROSS: You describe yourself as not a religious person. But do you ever wish that you could have religion like your grandmother did and therefore, find some kind of holy meaning in the most horrible things that have happened?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I think, you know, she had such a faith and I understood it as a great comfort to her. And there are times that I think that I wish I had such a comfort.

I remember when she was being remembered at her service, the preacher looking directly at me and saying, grieve not as others grieve. He was sermonizing about how the faithful don't have the same kind of grief, because they know that there is something else. And so I felt indicted as he looked at me and said grieve not as others grieve, as if he was pointing to me and saying, I know that you are not the faithful and because of that you have a different kind of grief, the wrong kind.

GROSS: And were you changed by that at all?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Oh, I was angry.

GROSS: Angry at him for making you feel that way when you were grieving.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Yes. I...

GROSS: As if there were a wrong kind of grief.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: I think I wanted remembrance of her and I wanted comfort. I mean, I think funeral services are for the living in some ways. They are to remember the dead, but in the face of the living, beloved. And so I didn't feel comforted.

GROSS: Not to make things too pat, but I think by writing poetry you're kind of extracting meaning from things.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Oh, I think so. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. TRETHEWEY: ...there's a poem in which I even talk about something that's a kind of faith. I think poetry is always a kind of faith. It is the kind that I have. It is what can offer solace, meaning, but also makes sense of even this liturgical language in a secular way that allows me to understand these events.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, I really wish the best to you and to your brother. And thank you very much for speaking to us and for reading some of your poetry.

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Thank you, Terry. It was good to talk to you.

GROSS: Natasha Trethewey's new book of prose and poetry is called "Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

You can hear her read another poem and you can read an excerpt of her book on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the movies made this character one of the most recognizable detectives of all times.

(Soundbite of movie, "Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo")

Mr. WARNER OLAND (Actor): (as Charlie Chan) In future remember, tongue often hang men quicker than rope.

GROSS: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new cultural history of Charlie Chan. This is FRESH AIR.

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