Tuesday, 18 September 2012

DIVERSITY Vs. CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Hello, hello, hello my lovelies! Blog hiatus is over - I hope YOU all had a lovely week? - and sadly I didn't get much work done at all, for various tedious reasons with which I have no intention of boring you.

However, what I did get done was the first draft of this blog post, because, Dear Readers, last week I read an interview with the writer Jay Kristoff - author of the novel STORMDANCER - and had a very strong reaction to it. And as you know, when Zolah has a strong reaction to something, she likes to rant about it here. I've actually been holding myself back from posting this for several days because I wanted to give myself time to cool down and look at the issue rationally (ha ha. Yeah. Well, I tried).

Unless you've been living under a rock, I'm sure you've seen some of the buzz for this novel. It's a huge book. Everyone is talking about it. Now I am going to talk about it too, but not in the way that the majority of other people are, unfortunately.

First off I should say I haven't read the book. Nope. Not a single word of it. But I was hugely excited when the synopsis hit the internet, just like everyone else:
Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country's last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she's determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?
When I saw the covers, that just shot my excitement up to a whole new level:



They look SO GOOD, right? I even put the US one (that's the illustrated one) on my board for The Trilogy on Pinterest! And then it all went horribly wrong because I read this.

Just in case you don't want to click away or the interview disappears for whatever reason, I'll reprint the part that I'm concerned with - the part that made me stop like someone had smacked me right in the face with a cast-iron skillet here:
Why did you locate your novel and upcoming series in Japan?

I wish I had a good answer for that. I could make up one about being the scion of a line of gaijin who travelled to japan in the 19th century and learned the Ancient Art of Awesome… but that’d be pure lies. I guess I wanted to write a steampunk book because I loved the aesthetic, but European-based steampunk seemed like it had already been done a lot, and done very well. The world had some incredible cultures in the 19th century, and I think fantasy is already shamefully guilty of a European focus. Plus, you know, chainsaw katanas…

How much research did you have to do with regards to authenticity? 

Less than people seem to think. It’s kinda odd – I’ve had people ask if I did a degree in Japanese studies, but the closest I’ve come is reading all six volumes of AKIRA in a week. Maybe I’d picked up a lot of detail through film and manga that I’ve consumed down through the years, but Wikipedia was really my go-to-guy. I have a friend who lives in Japan who I bounce ideas off too. I pay him with the promise of booze.
Oooookay.

Before I go on, I want to say that this blog article isn't an attack on Mr Kristoff. As I said earlier, I haven't read his book. He could have been misquoted, misinterpreted or simply being funny rather than serious in this interview. I don't know him in any way at all, let alone personally. I'm not writing this to hurt him or his book sales - and in fact, from the amount of advance buzz his book is getting, I'm sure that it's going to be a huge success regardless of what little-midlist-me might think.

However, by answering these questions in this way, he has made it impossible for me to ever read STORMDANCER and that, quite frankly, p*sses me off. Why do these remarks affect me this way? Because they raise issues of diversity - that wonderful thing that I love to see, which I attempt to write, which I want to encourage with every fibre of my being - and cultural appropriation, which is not, in any way, shape or form, OK.

What's the difference? Well, I talk diversity here and here but basically when you write diversely you attempt to include strong, realistic portrayals of many different kinds of people, most especially those who are traditionally excluded, marginalised, silenced or stereotyped by the mainstream media of the West (which, as we know, really only likes to see white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered people, and particularly men, in juicy roles). This often means writing about other religions, other ethnicities, and other cultures than your own. The whole point of attempting to be a diverse writer would be to write about those cultures with respect, attempting to show them as fully realised, complex and valid.

Cultural appropriation on the other hand, is where a privileged author uses the trappings of another culture as an 'exotic' background and its people as a quaint novelty, mere window dressing for some story he wants to tell, without having any respect for or interest in that culture, or in representing it truthfully and accurately.

Diversity is a way of unfolding our awareness of the world, of exploring our differences and acknowleging that all of humanity has a story. Diversity is about expanding your mind. It's about learning.

Cultural appropriation is about reinforcing stereotypes because they give you a quick and easy way to add colour or excitement to your story. Cultural appropriation is about being so unconsciously certain that your way of life is the only real or important or valid one that it doesn't occur to you that you might not be perfectly qualified to use an entirely different culture as a backdrop for your story without doing any real research about it. It's about putting assumptions, stereotypes and inaccurate information on the page and actually being proud of it because you think the mere fact that you stooped to visit another culture with your writing ought to be an honour for that culture. And if you misrepresented something, no one who matters (ie. no one from your culture) will either notice or care.

Diversity is casting a character in a film with a black or Asian or Indian or Native American actor just because they're a bloody good actor and there's no reason the character should be white.

Cultural appropriation is casting a white person in a role that should be filled by a black, Asian, Indian or Native American actor and then saying that it's OK because the make-up department put bronzer and a wig on them.

I'm a fantasy writer. I know full-well that sometimes the setting must serve the story. Shadows on the Moon is set in Tsuki no Hikari no Kuni rather than the real, historical Japan because I knew I couldn't tell the story that I wanted to tell in any version of real Japan. But that didn't stop me from exploring Japanese culture to the fullest of my ability, even if two thirds of the stuff I found out never made it into the book at all. That didn't stop me from attempting to show all the aspects of Japanese culture that borrowed as much respect within my story as possible. That didn't stop me from being *interested* in the culture from which I was taking inspiration.

I didn't do a perfect job. I made mistakes. Some have already been pointed out to me and possibly in the wake of this post people will turn up and tell me about even more. Messing up is part of attempting to do that scary diverse writing thing and I've accepted that, and the butt-kickings that may deservedly bruise my behind as a result. The point is I CARED. I tried. I did my best.

Setting your book in a culture you know very little about, then proudly telling the world that your only research was random anime and manga you'd seen over the years, Wikipedia, and some guy you know (who, from the sound of it, isn't even actually Japanese)? That doesn't display interest, or caring, or respect for that culture, does it? It's so breathtakingly wrong that I'mkind of shocked, in this day and age, that anyone could speak like that without pausing halfway through and realising: I sound like a complete *sshat.

Fantasy is shamefully guilty of a European focus, it's true. But if your answer to this is to base your book's fictional country on a different culture in which you have less interest than a kid doing a book report for school? That doesn't mean you've broken through the shameful focus on Europe. It means you've just randomly used someone else's culture to try and make yourself look somehow better, more broadminded, more liberal, than all those Europe-focused writers without actually BEING better than them. It means you've just added to the already extensive history of exoticised, novelty-value portrayals of non-Western cultures. Which is an *sshat move, man.

It also leads to problems like you thinking that 'sama' in Japanese is the exact same thing as the word 'Sir' in English and using it accordingly. Which, as anyone who has any kind of interest in Japan would know, is a complete misunderstanding not only of that word, but of the usage of the honourific system of address. As does believing that 'hai!' is the same as 'yes!' (hint: it's not, and it makes your characters sound very odd indeed if they're constantly using it that way). Also, if you're going to have the word 'Japan' right there on your front over it might be a good idea not to use Pandas (native to China - an entirely different country, even if it's filled with more of those Asian people!) as a feature of the wildlife in your story. These are just three of the problems which other people have noticed in the book, and which even an elementary level of research would have eliminated. I mean, I'd expect anyone who'd read a couple of volumes of manga to have picked those issues up.

What's even more baffling is that there's apparently a glossary explaining, among other things, the correct meaning and usage of both these words at the back of the book, so someone at the publisher did do the research and did know all this - but either it wasn't thought worthwhile to edit the book to make it more credible, or the writer refused to consider that the way he wrote it in the first draft wasn't fine.

In case anyone needs this confirming? As Westerners, whatever we think we know, or what - God help us - 'everyone knows' about any culture other than our own? Is not a good enough basis on which to build a respectful portrait of that culture. Nor is a passing interest in films produced by that culture, or having known a girl from that culture once, or having read a book about it in school. The West has spent its entire history marginalising, exoticising, exploiting, silencing and generally stomping all over every culture that wasn't its own and that means we've only seen the bowdlerised Western version of anything that isn't the West. Intuition doesn't cut it. The idea that 'we're all the same deep inside!' doesn't cut it. It's just not good enough.

Show some respect and do your frakking research.

No, you still won't get it perfect, most probably. But at least you won't have treated other people's cultures as if they were crispy bacon flavoured topping you sprinkle on your salad to make all the green leafy bits look a bit more appealing.

In order to back up my outrage over this issue, let's have some posts from other people who tackle  cultural appropriation with far more eloquence than I could hope to. First, let's have this stingingly brilliant post from Wistfully Linda in which she talks about Green Eyed Asian Love Interests.

And now a review from Cyna on You Kill Me - warning, adult language on this one! But also a really detailed examination of the various problems in the text, including the ones mentioned above and mmmmmaaaaany others.

Finally, this well-reasoned post from author Ellen Oh, who talks about The Importance of Proper Research.

In closing, Dear Readers: diversity is a very good thing and I hope you will strive to achieve it in your lives and your writing. Keep at it. But remember that diversity always comes from a place of humble respect and willingness to learn. If you find yourself writing about people and cultures who are entirely different from you and yours - about whose unique experiences you actually know nothing, remember! - with the smug attitude that Wikipedia has all the information you could possibly need? You're writing like an *sshat.

You are not *sshats, my loves. You are better than that. We all should be.

28 comments:

Vivienne said...

As I read through the author's responses I could see how it would upset you. I know how thorough you are and put everything into your writing, so to have someone dismiss his research in such a way must have had smoke coming out of your ears!
I hope you never meet him! You are right my dear. I am with you 100% on this and he makes it all sound so easy as though it all just rolled off the top of his head. I am not keen to read this book now either I'm afraid.

Emma Pass said...

As I read this post, I thought of Ellen Oh's post and was going to ask if you'd read it, but then I saw the link!

As she says in that post: "Please research carefully… show your readers that not only can you tell a damn fine story, but you can do it with respect."

I'm with you - both of you - 100% on this too. If I was going to write about another culture, even I was only using elements of it, I wouldn't just use Wikipedia to find out a few (possibly incorrect) facts. That just seems… wrong, somehow. :/

Zoë Marriott said...

Viv: Well exactly! It's the arrogance that really gets to me - this assumption that there's nothing about another culture that couldn't be learned from Wiki. Wiki,for heaven's sake! Gah.

Emma: Thanks :) Wiki is what lazy kids use to crib homework, and it's well known that it's full of inaccuracies. Mr Kristoff must have known that. Apparently he didn't care. I'm not even Japanese and that makes me feel insulted and patronised!

need-tea said...

Great post! I haven't commented in a long while but I totally wrote a very scathing review of his book about the multitude of things that pissed me off about this book and his portrayal of my culture and heritage. >=[.

Zoë Marriott said...

Neet-Tea: Well, it's nice to see you back, then :) Can I have a link for your review? I'd like to see it!

need-tea said...

Here you go!

http://need-tea.livejournal.com/156332.html

thebookwurrm said...

I appreciate you taking the time (and braving the pitchforks) to write this. It just seems amazing that people are going to read this and not realize that what they are reading is an incorrect portrayal of Japanese culture, mythical though it may be. And frankly, I have no idea what the author was thinking - his interviews do not paint him kindly.

Book Angel Emma said...

I read the Book Smugglers post about the same book. The author has managed to gain huge amounts of publicity even before its release on the premise alone. Its such a shame that all the enthusiasm has been for this :(

linda said...

Great post, and thanks for the link! You make awesome points about the differences between diversity and appropriation. Absolutely agree with you that, when writing about another culture, it's important to do your research, be respectful of the culture, and take responsibility when you get things wrong. From the interviews I've seen, it doesn't seem like Kristoff's done a good job with that.

Kayla + Cyna said...

Very interesting post, I especially like the explanations of the difference between diversity and appropriation. That's a key thing, I think, that authors need to understand when taking on a culture not their own.

Thanks for the link :) would you mind if I linked this in my review itself? I'm trying to collect the posts thatve been addressing this, so many people have interesting things to contribute to this discussion! :)

Becky Mahoney said...

As someone who has lived in Tokyo and works in a Japanese workplace: thank you.

Zoë Marriott said...

Bookwurrm: The fact that the author does seem so genuinely clueless might be the only thing he has going for him. He doesn't seem to get that anything's wrong with the way he approached this. Hopefully he'll learn better.

Emma: I know! *Sigh* It's so disappointing.

Linda: You're very welcome. I've been wading through your archives since a friend linked me to your series on the Green Eyed Asian Love Interest and I absolutely love your blog.

Kayla + Cyna: Please do! The more chatter we can get going on this subject the better I think :)

Becky: Thanks - and you're welcome.

Megha said...

Oh my goodness. Great post Zoe! This makes me super angry at that author. Like, seriously.

As a kid at school, I do TONS of research, and I can already say that I do more research than Mr Jay Kristoff seems to have done here >.< This is so saddening, because YA fantasy has been getting so much better recently, and it's one of the MOST diverse genres there is, and then THIS comes. This rubbish. Any good writer (I will say, including ME) knows that world building and research aren't kids' toys! Writers spend AGES researching the countries that their stories are set in, and this guy? He treats it like it's no big deal.

It's also disgusting how he seems to have made the book set in Japan for the sake of it - like you said - and just to make himself seem better than he really is. Diversity is - as you said - accepting all races and cultures truthfully. Like you said there:

Diversity is casting a character in a film with a black or Asian or Indian or Native American actor just because they're a bloody good actor and there's no reason the character should be white.

THAT is diversity. Diversity is not adding multicultural characters to your novels just to make people like you or appreciate you more, or think you're better than you really are.

Way to keep the stereotypes about Japanese going, huh?! >.< For years now YA fantasy writers, and all writers actually, have been trying to do their best to avoid stereotypes, because they are offensive and false and stupid. But Sir Jay Kristoff here thinks it's fine to base Japanese characters on the first portrayal of them that he has seen! Which, I can almost guarantee, was a complete stereotype and in no way the truth about the Japanese.

Seriously, if *I* feel so bad about this - without being from Japan - what must the Japanese think?

And my final point: as my teachers always say, Wikipedia is a really bad source. It's edited by any person on the internet. Anyone could go and change the population of Japan from what it is, to '1' or '2'! This is a fact the whole world knows, that Wiki is a bad source for true information. Has Jay Kristoff been hiding under a rock? It's blindingly obvious.

That's it. None of this was meant to be offensive, or anything. Not going to say 'it's just my opinion' because that's obvious - hence why *I* am writing the comment.

Now, I shall go and tell my brain to sleep so I can calm down.

PS. If Jay Kristoff was just joking, well, he needs to get better at his sense of humour. Because that wasn't funny. Respect the cultures, man.

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Well ranted!

batgirl said...

Excellent post, Zo! (ha, and my capcha cue is 10 diBest, how appropriate!)

Zoë Marriott said...

B: And if you think that, I know it must be pretty decent :) Thanks. I meant to post a link on the forum actually - I should go and do that now.

Lucy Coats said...

Zoe, this really hit a chord. Today I've been researching Chinese culture, geographical locations, names and their meanings, history, astrology, numerology and much more. This for a 2500 word pitch for a series I don't even know if I'll get commissioned for. Research and detail matter. I wouldn't dream of writing about a culture which is not my own (even if I have a fantasy setting for it) without showing some respect by bothering to find out as much as I can about it. Those tiny nuggets of useful and perfect information which appear serendipitously give me immense pleasure too! By the end of a book I normally have piles of books and pages of information, hardly any of which will go into the final draft, but which I need to know about in order to get the authentic feel. I'll probably also have travelled to the place at some point. I cannot understand any writer who does research-by-Wiki. Unforgivable.

Beth Kemp said...

Brilliantly argued and explained as ever, Zoe. I think what I find most surprising is his blissful ignorance and lack of awareness he should feel any shame. Reminded me of a couple of very sixth formers I had the misfortune to teach for a very short time. Pity that an approach which quickly leads to 'actually, A-level study isn't for you' could be condoned - nay promoted - by a published author.

AmieSalmon said...

It makes me so mad to read things like that. As though it doesn't matter what you're writing about.

I research everything. As much as I can. For example, I wrote a short story recently where one of the characters was unable to keep her pregnancies going to full term.
Now, how awful would it have been for me to write about that without doing ANY research. Now I did a lot, for a story that was only around a 1000 words, but that word count didn't matter - I wanted to tell the story right, as it deserved to be. And I hope I did.

The point is, as writers we want to tell our characters stories with justice. But if/when their stories reflect real life (cultures/rape/abuse/disease/miscarriages) then don't we owe it to those people to tell the story truthfully? Factually? Research with our hearts, that's what I say.

Phew. Rant over. Thank you for writing this post Zoe!

Krispy said...

I already thanked you on twitter, but just wanted to say again THIS POST SO MUCH!!!

I think it's always going to be difficult ground to tread when you're basing your fantasy world on a real life culture. Like I think authors should be able to write about the things they want and to be able to "pick and choose" to some degree when building their fantasy worlds, but it's like you said, do the research! Show respect! That way when an author "picks and chooses," it's done with thoughtful and respectful deliberation.

Like you said, mistakes will be made and no one is going to get everything right, and there will always be people out there who won't be satisfied, but even if I don't like some of the world-building choices an author makes, I'd feel better knowing that at least the author tried. At least the author put in the time and effort and came to the source culture with respect and open-mindedness.

So in this case, really, it's the apparently flippant attitude towards research and setting that comes across in these interviews that upsets me.

Zoë Marriott said...

Lucy: I think that's the secret really, isn't it? Admitting your own lack of knowledge and *committing* to wading through all those piles of facts. I wonder if it's the fact that he's a man that's caused this? Blokes are very used to mansplaining about topics on which they actually know very little, after all...

Beth Kemp: It reminds me a bit of that, as well! Back when I was at school, I mean - people who thought it was a great idea to copy from the other kids and so half the class turned in essays with the exact same mistakes in them... But I'm really baffled that the publisher had all this research to hand, enough to produce a CORRECT glossary, and yet didn't bother to use that research to actually fact-check the manuscript? Baffling.

Amie: Precisely. It's impossible to understand the hurt and harm you can cause to people by just using their culture, situation or ethnicity as some kind of window dressing without actually caring enough to get the details right. Any time that it starts to feel like too much trouble, people should remember that phrase: research with your heart.

Krispy: Yeah, that weird mansplaining attitude just... I can't get my head around it. I suppose it's like when my brother in law (an engineer who doesn't read) starts lecturing me about my career and telling me I need to get an agent (I have one) and that I need to read my contracts thoroughly (I do). He knows nothing about publishing or writing but he assumes, as a bloke, that he MUST know more than me. I think maybe JK had the same attitude. 'Well, I definitely know more than any of these silly YA readers, so I'll be fine...' NO.

camphor said...

I enjoyed your rant, and wish others were as clear about what diversity IS.

So. Thank you :)

Anonymous said...

I just want to start this by saying that this is not an attack, but rather an expression of my disappointment.

The first thing I want to point out is that in your post, you speak about the importance of doing research and yet you have not read the book that you are ranting about.

More importantly, I wonder if you took the time to think about how the author would feel? You posted this right around the release day for his début novel, and I sincerely hope that he hasn't read this (although from Twitter it would appear he has). I would hate to think that this post negatively affected what should be one of the biggest days in his writing career.

Diversity versus cultural appropriation is an important topic and I agree with you on many of your general points about the issue. I do, however, feel that you could have made your argument without bashing anyone. Rather than being a post about something that needs to be discussed as an overall issue, I think that it has come across very personal, especially when you lowered the tone by calling the author an 'asshat'.

Regardless of the points you made, I think that specifically targeting a fellow author is in extremely bad taste.

You mentioned that you were worried about people bringing out the pitchforks, but to me, this read like you were the one holding the pitchfork and screaming 'asshat'.
I have saw discussions from people saying that this post was done in order to gain some publicity for your own books, off the back of criticizing a popular new release. While I don't think that this was the case whatsoever, it appears that the way you went about making your points has caused speculation.

I have read and enjoyed each of your novels, but this is one thing you have written that I wish I hadn't read.

Zoë Marriott said...

Camphor: Thanks. I don't really think it can be discussed too often, so I'm glad that I made sense.

Anon: I accept your opinion on this piece in exactly the same spirit that I would expect Jay Kristoff to accept my criticism of him. I've put my work and my blog out there for people to read and react to, and your reaction is no less valid for being one that I don't personally agree with.

Realistically? Jay Kristoff's career isn't going to be affected in any way at all by this post. I knew that when I posted it. If he were a small-time author like myself I'd have hesitated, but the fact is that his book has now gained such levels of recognition and advance hype that my outrage, if it even makes a ripple (which I would doubt) is only going to cause MORE people to buy it, not less.

Nevertheless, as someone who believes deeply in diversity and who believes that it's essential for privileged authors to approach other cultures with a respectful, humble attitude, I felt it was really important for another author to stand up against Mr Kristoff's attitude and say This Is Not Right. I'm sorry if that impinges on the author's happiness in his book's release - but I personally know several people who've been upset and hurt by his expressed attitude and the inaccuracies in his book, and those people are in a position of far less privilege and power than he is right now. Mr Kristoff has literally hundreds of people gushing over, praising and promoting his book on the internet every day. People from ethnic minorities who feel their culture has been marginalised, exploited and exoticised by Mr Kristoff's work have no such powerful PR machine ensuring that their voice is heard.

If the author's friends wish to speculate that I'm trying to somehow get ahead by openly criticising another author who will no doubt be able to buy and sell me by this time next year, and who may well hold a grudge against me for what I've said? They've obviously already thrown common sense to the winds, so there's nothing I can do about that. My attitude is this: Cultural Appropriation and lack of respect for other cultures harms people. It harms them every day. And those of us who wish to be allies have a responsibility to call it out, whenever and whereever we see it, no matter how impolite, inconvenient, or even unwise it may seem to others.

That's me. I do what I think is right. If Mr Kristoff wants to do a u-turn and explain his remarks, and make it clear that he was just being hipster or something and that he actually DID approach the Japanese culture with respect? Then I (and others calling him out) might be willing to concede that the misrepresentations and inaccuracies in his work are just genuine mistakes. But until then? I'll keep banging my drum over here.

Restiva said...

Gah, enough of the hating on Wikipedia! Yes, anyone can edit it... but most of the people who do care very deeply about the topic they're writing on, and it's always possible to check the history of the page to see what changes have been made. It's not a bad place to start researching an unfamiliar topic, anyway.

That said, great post. I completely agree with the rest of what you said. It really disappoints me that someone can seem to care so little about the culture they're writing about. I heard he was using Chinese exclamations (aiya!) in the book as well as the whole panda thing - so very careless/offensive. Worse is that most of those inaccuracies won't be picked up on, as most readers probably don't know that much about Japan...

Hopefully he'll try harder for book 2!

Zoë Marriott said...

Restiva: Well, I don't HATE Wiki. I think it's probably a good place to START, maybe looking up topics that you want to research further. But it's by no means the kind of resource that you can use as the *basis* for your worldbuilding about another culture. Much as the people who edit it may care about their topics, they may still be wrong, and they may also be biased, or have an incomplete understanding. When you look at a lot of different sources hopefully you can start to understand what biases might be informing different people's viewpoints, but when you only have a single source (edited by multiple people) there's no way of doing that.

Other than that - right on :) I think it might be hard for Mr Kristoff to backtrack and start showing respect for Japan at this point - he's already made such an issue about not caring. But maybe in future books in a different series. We can only hope.

Voss Foster said...

Nisi Shawl also has some very good (free) articles about this online.

http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10087

http://www.sfwa.org/2009/12/transracial-writing-for-the-sincere/

If anyone wanted to give them a read.

As always, great post, Zoe.

Voss

Zoë Marriott said...

Voss: Thank you! I'll bookmark those and give them a read later.

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