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Seth, Vikram

SETH, Vikram

Nationality: Indian. Born: Calcutta, India, 20 June 1952. Education: Doon School, India; Corups Christi College, Oxford, B.A. 1975; Stanford University, M.A. in economics 1979; Nanjing University, 1982. Career: Senior editor, Stanford University Press, 1985-86. Awards: Thomas Cook travel book award, 1983, for From Heaven Lake; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1985-86; Commonwealth poetry prize, 1986; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986-87; Sahitya Akademi award, 1988. Address: c/o HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd St., New York, New York 10022-5299, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse. New York, Random House, and London, Faber, 1986.

A Suitable Boy. New York, HarperCollins, and London, Phoenix, 1993.

An Equal Music. New York, Broadway Books, 1999.

Poetry

Mappings. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1981; London, Viking, 1994.

The Humble Administrator's Garden. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.

All You Who Sleep Tonight (verse play). New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1990.

Beastly Tales from Here to There, illustrated by Ravi Shankar. New Delhi, Viking, 1992; New York, HarperCollins, 1994.

The Poems, 1981-1994. New Delhi, India and New York, Penguin Books, 1995.

Other

From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet. London, Chatto and Windus, 1983; Boston, Faber, 1986.

Arion and the Dolphin (for children), illustrated by Jane Ray. London, Orion Children's Books, 1994; New York, Dutton Children's Books, 1995.

Translator, Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. New Delhi, Viking, and New York, HarperPerennial, 1992.

* * *

In poetry and interviews Vikram Seth has mocked experimental literature and romantic and extreme attitudes towards life. For him literature and life should be enjoyable, commonsensical, this worldly. For someone seemingly in favor on the conventional and practical, there is a Faustian side to his writing. His three novels have been virtuoso performances and for serious literature immensely successful with the reading public, and translated in many languages. Each novel has been very different from the others and has taken an older literary form in unexpected new dimensions. In our time when being avant-garde and shocking has become expected of the modern, Seth is a different kind of revolutionary, an extremely daring artist using older literary models and pretending to be an old-fashioned writer for the general reader. Yet such drawing on older artistic styles to create a contemporary literature is one characteristic fashion of our time and often termed the postmodern.

Although Indian he is also part of the new internationalism. Each of his novels is set in a different country. The Golden Gate was a high wire act pretending to be genial comedy. Set in a San Francisco of female rock musicians, gays, local radio stations, Berkeley, "Just Desserts," and Italian wine makers, it seemed to be the great California novel, noting the fashions and distinctions of West Coast society and culture. Reading the novel was next best to living in San Francisco. At its heart was a common Seth theme, a relationship ruined by the extreme demands of a lover, and the woman's sensible choice of a good kind-hearted man in place of the miseries of an intense, agonizing love. The commonsense pleasures of enjoying each day are better than the pains that result from unrealizable desires. The novel, however, was verse, filled with amusing puns, and part of its fun was a difficult complicated regular rhyme scheme based on Alexander Puskin's eighteenth-century Russian epic poem Eugene Onegin. The verse form, a fourteen line stanza, and its amusing hipness meant the novel was a virtuoso display, a great show of what looked like effortlessly mastering a seemingly impossible poetic form. While the novel lacked depth of characters, that was part of Seth's message, avoid depth and misery, enjoy life while possible a day at a time. People ruin their lives with romantic ideas, excessive demands, obsessions, intolerance, rules, fanaticism, political ideals and causes.

A Suitable Boy uses the "whom should she marry" theme of many nineteenth-century novels to offer a portrait of the intricacies of northern Indian society during the 1950s. Its models are the realistic novels of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy, with their range, depth, social detail, and examination of the ways of society, and it is said to be one of the longest novels in English. Following the intertwining lives of four upper-middle-class Hindustani families, A Suitable Boy moves from Calcutta through the Urdu-speaking region of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Benares to Delhi. It sketches a society from the untouchables through the new entrepreneurs to the Muslim Nawabs. Attention is given to such traditional trades as shoe-making and how they are threatened by foreign imports. The heroine, the daughter of a deceased senior government administrator, financially insecure, and dependent on the good will of others, falls in love with an unsuitable, brilliant Muslim intellectual but instead sensibly decides to marry a rather uncouth self-made businessman. He might be said to represent the new India which will replace the older Muslim and imitation British elites while avoiding Hindu fundamentalism. She also sensibly avoids marrying a witty sophisticated writer, who seems a bit like Seth himself, as he is too preoccupied with his own writing to make a good husband. The story can obviously be interpreted in terms of India which should put its future in the hands of practical businessman rather than fanatics, romantics, traditionalists, revolutionaries, and poets. Traditions should bring comfort and ease rather than become a source of foolishness, pride, fantasy, and violence.

In An Equal Music the message is similar, but the method and story deepen the treatment of character. Here Seth has taken the early twentieth-century European novel about the life of musicians and brought it up to date, set it in the contemporary world at a time when few schools in England still teach classical music, and when chamber music is losing its appeal and string quartets find it difficult to survive. This is partly a novel about economic survival as the world changes, but it is mainly about emotional survival as situations change; there is no love which cannot become destructiveexcessive passions destroy.

The main story concerns a second violinist in an English string quartet who a decade earlier left his teacher, a great master of the Viennese school who tried to force his style and perspective about a solo career on his students. The English violinist is anti-authoritarian, having fought his lower-middle parents to pursue a career in music; he rebels, leaves Vienna, but also leaves a younger woman, a pianist who loves him. She breaks down, and on the rebound marries an American who gives her understanding and security. A decade later the violinist is still in love with her. They meet, have an affair, but she realizes that she is hurting her husband, risks hurting her child; the renewal of such passion can only destroy the life she and her husband have made. When she breaks off the affair, the violinist refuses to accept her wishes. For him there can be no friendship with her, only violent passion. In a funk with life he also quits the string quartet, destroying years of friendship, hard work, and the possibility of a breakthrough to fame and financial successthe quartet has recently had an offer from a major recording company. At the conclusion the quartet forgives him, and they reunite like a happy family, the quartet being the equivalent in this novel of a family of contrasting personalities who have learned to tolerate each other for their common good.

Although told by the violinist in an impressionistic manner like the motifs of music, with transformations into other keys, recapitulations, even a fugue-like poetic conclusion, the novel is filled with the detail usual to a Vikram Seth novel. The discussions of tunings, structuring a performance, violin makers, never feel out of place. That Seth has now written excellent books set in the U.S.A., India, England and a travel book about China, with American, Indian, and British central characters, suggests that national boundaries are falling to a new kind of international writer. Seth's own use of different literary models including hard to master difficult forms may suggest that despite his message of commonsense and comfort he enjoys great challenges if the hard work is likely to bring immediate fame and financial rewards.

Bruce King

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Seth, Vikram

Seth, Vikram (1952– ) Indian novelist. He came to attention with his award-winning 1983 travelogue, From Heaven Lake. His epic A Suitable Boy (1993) is one of the longest novels in English. Other novels include An Equal Music (1999).

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Seth, Vikram

SETH, Vikram


Nationality: Indian. Born: Calcutta, 20 June 1952. Education: Corpus Christi College, Oxford, B.A. (honors) 1975, and M.A. (honors) 1978, in philosophy, politics, and economics; Stanford University, California, M.A. in economics 1979; Nanjing University, China, 1980–82, university diploma. Career: Senior editor, Stanford University Press, 1985–86. Awards: Thomas Cook Travel Book award, 1983; Ingram Merrill fellowship, 1985–86; Guggenheim fellowship, 1986–87; Commonwealth poetry prize, 1986; Sahitya Academy award, 1988; W.H. Smith award, 1994, for A Suitable Boy. Agent: Giles Gordon, Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WClN 2LF, England; or Irene Skolnick Agency, 121 West 27th Street, Suite 601, New York, New York 10001, U.S.A. Address: c/o HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, New York 10022–5244, U.S.A.

Publications

Poetry

Mappings. Calcutta, Writers Workshop, 1981.

The Humble Administrator's Garden. Manchester, Carcanet, 1985.

All You Who Sleep Tonight. New Delhi, Penguin, New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1990.

Beastly Tales from Here and There, illustrated by Ravi Shankar. New Delhi and New York, Viking, 1992.

The Poems, 1981–1994. New York, Penguin, 1995.

Novels

The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse. New York, Random House, and London, Faber, 1986.

A Suitable Boy. New York, HarperCollins, and London, Phoenix, 1993.

Other

From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet. London, Chatto and Windus, 1983; New York, Vintage, 1987.

Arion and the Dolphin: A Libretto. New Delhi and New York, Penguin Books, 1994.

Arion and the Dolphin (for children), illustrated by Jane Ray. London, Orion Children's Books, 1994; New York, Dutton Children's Books, 1995.

An Equal Music. New Delhi, Viking, and London, Phoenix, 1999.

Translator, Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. New Delhi, Viking, and New York, HarperPerennial, 1992.

*

Critical Studies: "Vikram Seth's 'The Golden Gate'" by Rowena Hill, in Literary Criterion (Bangalore, India), 21 (4), 1986; "'Homeward Ho!' Silicon Valley Pushkin" by Marjorie Perloff, in American Poetry Review (Philadelphia), 15 (6), November-December 1986; "'The Golden Gate' and the Quest for Self-Realization" by Makarand R. Paranjape, in ACLALS Bulletin, 8 (1), 1989; "'The Golden Gate': The First Indian Novel in Verse" by Santosh Gupta, in The New Indian Novel in English: A Study of the 1980s, edited by Viney Kirpal, New Delhi, Allied Publishers, 1990; "Recycling the Genre: The Russian and American Novel in Verse: The Case of Pushkin's 'Evgenii Onegin' and Seth's 'The Golden Gate'" by Roumiana Deltcheva, in Rosyjska Ruletka, 2, 1995; "Trunks of the Banyan Tree: History, Politics & Fiction" by J.H. Walker, in Island Magazine, 63, winter 1995; "'The World Goes On': Narrative Structure and the Sonnet in Vikram Seth's 'The Golden Gate'" by Jay Curlin, in Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association (Conway, Arkansas), 22 (2), fall 1996.

Vikram Seth comments:

I write in different genres so as not to bore myself—and the reader. And I like writing that is clear, even deceptively clear.

*  *  *

Vikram Seth is another poet of exile in the postcolonial world, in which writers seemingly switch societies, cultures, and even languages with ease, yet under the poised surface are the anxieties of those without the security of home and place. Mappings records Seth's feelings of nostalgia for India after studying abroad for many years and his continuing attraction to the "notes of other birds, / The nightingale, the wren." For Seth the poetic traditions, other than those of India, at the time were British and, later, American and Chinese. Many of the poems are of youthful restlessness and ambivalent feelings toward family. They are also antiromantic and express a rational hedonism; life is to be enjoyed while it lasts. A game of Scrabble, travel, or an evening of sex seem equally pleasurable. The comic rhymes and conscious superficialities, pastiche, and parody deflate seriousness, mock high culture, and add up to an alternative vision.

The Humble Administrator's Garden also reports on surfaces and the trivia of life while using such forms as the sonnet, quatrain, and epigrammatic couplet. Although some poems are in free verse, Seth usually writes a regularly stressed line. A refusal to look inward, a celebration of simple pleasures and of survival, and a half-serious resort to platitude and pastiche for amusement and as defense make Seth a poet of our time, of eclecticism and self-aware artifice. The Humble Administrator's Garden is divided into poems about China, where Seth studied for two years, India, where he was born and raised, and California, where he then lived. China is a place to discover universal brotherhood despite cultural differences, India is a land of memories and lost relations, but America, for all its comforts and pleasures, is lonely and dangerous. The China poems are imagistic and atmospheric, but tendencies towards chinoiserie are held in check by Western stanzaic forms. Often the poems offer analogies to the poetics of their creation. In the title poem, a sonnet, unscrupulous means and administrative practicality create the satisfying art of the garden. Mr. Wang "may have got / The means by somewhat dubious means, but now / This is the loveliest of gardens. What / Do scruples know of beauty anyhow?"

The California poems refer to loneliness, former loves, and nostalgia for a foreign, European past, presumably Seth's period as a student at Oxford. Emotions are mocked by expressing them platitudinously: "The fact is, this work is as dreary as shit. / I do not like it a bit." "There is so much to do / There isn't any time for feeling blue." The language is varied to invigorate an otherwise unreverberant diction. Although some of the poems appear so offhand in subject and manner as to be close to triviality, there is often a sense of a threat to survival. "Ceasing upon the Midnight" begins with absurdity ("He stacks the dishes on the table. / He wants to die, but is unable"), moves through memories of other countries and cultures, and returns to an unromantic, nonsuicidal, alcoholic present: "The bottle lies on the ground. / He sleeps. His sleep is sound." Deftly, ironically maneuvering its way through obvious echoes, the poem imitates the structure, movement, and psychology of the typical romantic ode, but it is undermined by bland irony, part of a highly unromantic poetic: "the rules / of metre, shield him from / Himself"; consequently, "to cease upon / / The midnight under the live-oak / Seems too derisory a joke." "Unclaimed" epigrammatically comments upon a passing sexual encounter: "To make love with a stranger is the best. / There is no riddle and there is no test." The throwaway manner is like the theme. Claiming "that this is all there is," Seth deflates romantic urges. To celebrate the pleasures of the passing moment and of ordinary life is to argue for a poetic of what is as opposed to the ideal.

The Golden Gate is a 307-page verse novel written in nearly six hundred fourteen-line, sonnetlike stanzas and loosely modeled upon Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. It is also an amused love song to San Francisco for its beauty and as symbol of the contemporary good life. Italian coffee houses, Japanese and Chinese restaurants, all-night bookshops, ice cream parlors (with Bubble Gum and Pumpkin Pie flavors), Berkeley, Silicon Valley, Telegraph Hill, and the Oakland hills provide settings for conversations and actions by characters who are representative of the various subcultures of the San Francisco area: John, a self-controlled WASP yuppie computer designer; Phil, a warm Jewish pacifist dropout; Janet, a Japanese feminist rock musician and sculptor; Liz, a career-minded Italian corporate lawyer; and her pious brother Ed, a troubled Roman Catholic homosexual. John's conservative inhibitions, his obsession with proper forms of behavior, his homophobia, and his intolerance and rages at deviance eventually cause him to lose Liz and reject Phil, his closest male friend. Loneliness and the need for others, central themes of The Golden Gate, are not resolved through romantic love. Phil says, "Passion's a prelude to disaster," and Liz does not "feel sure / I can trust passion any more." When Liz breaks with John and announces her forthcoming marriage, her father asks, "You do love Phil?" She replies, "Not on your life," and she thinks, "I couldn't / Hope for a better better half: / A good kind man who makes me laugh." By contrast John lives alone in a wretched state of anger, guilt, and desire.

Seth offers the reader a 1980s version of Ariosto, Butler, or Byron in which the self-conscious act of writing narrative is made part of the fun through the author's comments upon himself and his techniques, long digressions, the interweaving of plots, deft shifts of scenes, suspended development, and unexpected events and coincidences. Outrageous rhymes ("iguana"/"sultana"; "inter alia"/"full regalia") add variety and delight to an absurd but functional stanza rhymed ababccddeffegg. While many stanzas have literary echoes and allusions or offer a variation in how the three quatrains and couplet are welded, the poem is equally rooted in present-day popular culture, and the contemporary idiom is beautifully employed. The wit often updates the past: "… Don't put things off till it's too late. / You are the DJ of your fate." Rhyming has become fun. While part of the effect of The Golden Gate is the brisk, clear movement of the story within its swift tetrameter lines and many feminine rhymes, the interruptions, contrasts, and unexpected twists are ingenious. When Phil attends a party to meet Sue, Liz's sister, he instead falls in love with her brother Ed. Phil confesses to Liz, who reveals that she had known since "Sunday before the equinox / You both wore the same mismatched socks." The Golden Gate acknowledges its origins in epic romance through witty imitations of such conventions as an invocation to the muse, allusions to its predecessors, and the use of pets as an American equivalent to epic machinery and gods. Besides Ed's five-foot green iguana named Arnold Schwarzenegger and Janet's two "Sweet Siamese of rare refulgence," there is Liz's "Magnificat" Charlemagne, who jealously urinates on John's clothes and eventually contributes to the breakdown of their engagement. Seth invests significance in ordinary life, and even his formalism has the seeming spontaneity, directness, and immediacy of free verse.

Seth's next book, All You Who Sleep Tonight, is a collection of poems on diverse subjects. The "sleep" of the title is a metaphor for death, loss, the evasion of feelings, including the feelings of love, and the historical past, particularly those parts of it that brought grievous suffering upon individuals or whole peoples. The poems in the book are divided into five sections. The first section, "Romantic Residues," focuses on the quality of love in today's world. Its central theme is the reluctance to make a commitment and to take the risks that come with it. Love comes to an end or is not allowed to grow from the beginning, as in "A Style of Loving": "Picnic, movie, icecream; / Talk; to clear my head / Hot-buttered rum-coffee for you; / And so not to bed." Evasion of involvement, however, brings with it its own pain, and a melancholy feeling overhangs these poems. The "lovers" in "The Room and the Street" say farewell to each other after being together for a short while: "You take my hand, / Then stand and frown awhile. / At my express demand / You undertake to smile." The poems in the second section, "In Other Voices," show high seriousness, an element new in Seth's poetry. "Work and Freedom" portrays the horrors of the Holocaust indirectly by imagining the unbearable effect on the commandant of Auschwitz as a human being who is relieved to gain his freedom from his work when offered another assignment. "A Doctor's Journal Entry for August 6, 1945" evokes vividly the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. "Ghalib, Two Years after the Mutiny" gives a poignant depiction of the suffering of the great Urdu poet in the days when India was in the last throes of its conquest by the British. "In Other Places," the third section of the book, is mainly a series of tender vignettes on different places, but it also includes a longer poem, "On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge." The next section, "Quatrains," reflects a further expansion of Seth's perspective on human experience. It consists of four-line poems on miscellaneous subjects that range from a flippant phone conversation with a woman who hangs up to the semiserious philosophical observation that "your eyes, my understanding, all will rot …" The perspective deepens in the last section, "Meditations of the Heart," where the themes of death and a feeling of oneness with others in a common human fate dominate: "All you who sleep tonight / … Know that you aren't alone. / The whole world shares your tears, / Some for two nights or one, / And some for all their years."

In his successive writings Seth has continued to reveal ever new dimensions of his versatility. Beastly Tales from Here and There is a retelling of fables, two each from India, China, Greece, and Ukraine, besides two fables of his own creation. At one level these are stories for children, combining simple moral instruction with entertainment. Their strength, however, lies in their ability to entertain. Seth has mastered the art of storytelling, and his verse flows fluently and with perfect resilience. The apt use of specific and sufficient detail and a sense of both the comic and the tragic bring the characters and the situations fully alive, thus carrying the listener or the reader into the imaginary worlds of the stories. Captivating as the stories are for younger readers, like most fables they also have a level of seriousness suited to adults. For one thing, as in real life, the moral lessons are not always clear and categorical; in fact, one is often left wondering if a story contains any lesson at all. For instance, in "The Hare and the Tortoise," although Ms. Hare loses the race to Teddy, she receives all of the attention from the admiring pressmen and becomes successful and rich. While she is "pampered rotten," the tortoise is "forgotten." Such a lifelike outcome may be beyond the comprehension of a child's innocent mind.

The story closest to life is "The Elephant and the Tragopan," one of the two original fables by Seth. Its theme is the protection of the natural environment, also a subject of major concern in The Golden Gate. Led by an elephant and a tragopan, the wild animals of Bingle Valley march in a rally to the human town to protest against the building of a dam that would destroy their habitat. The head of the Man-Council, Bigshot, who is responsible for the decision to build the dam in order to build his vote bank and fortune, tries to manipulate the leaders into withdrawing their agitation. Failing to persuade them, he decides to hold them as prisoners. In the ensuing scuffle and confusion, he wrings the tragopan's neck and kills him, but he is stopped from going any further by his own son, who rises against him in support of the animal cause and sanity. Seth ends the story on an ambiguous note, however, leaving it "for the world" to decide whether or not the dam will be built.

Yet another kind of book by Seth is Arion and the Dolphin, a libretto for an opera. The story is based on the legend of the poet Arion of the seventh century B.C., who was associated with the court of Periander of Corinth and is credited with the invention of the dithyramb. In Seth's treatment Arion is a musician who sings to the accompaniment of the lyre and who serves as court musician to Periander, the tyrant of Corinth. He goes to Sicily to compete in a music festival and receives a large amount of gold for winning the competition. On return voyage to Corinth the sailors on the ship decide to kill him in order to take his gold. They force the captain, who had become Arion's friend on the voyage out, to agree to support them. Arion leaps overboard and is saved by dolphins, who dance and feast and sing with him. One dolphin becomes Arion's close friend, and the two together reach Corinth. Periander does not believe Arion's story, however, and orders him put in a prison cell, and the dolphin is caught by fishermen and turned into a circus act. Tortured and suffering because of its separation from Arion, the dolphin dies. Periander now realizes how much Arion and the dolphin loved each other, and he repents having doubted Arion's story and having caused the dolphin's death.

Arion and the Dolphin is a story of innocence. At one level it also is a story for children, and it is not surprising that Seth has written a version for children. Both Arion and the dolphin personify pure innocence and goodness, but the story also provides a forgiving understanding of characters who commit evil deeds. The goodness of the captain is obvious, and it is clear that he is compelled to comply with the sailors in their decision to kill Arion. The evil of the sailors is explained by their poverty, and Periander's high-handedness and cruelty are explained as being the result of his position. There is an underlying dichotomy in the story between the world of the sea and sky on the one hand and the earth on the other, the former representing unadulterated nature and goodness and the latter the human world fraught with evil. Arion derives the inspiration for his music from the sea through the sounds in a conch shell given to him by the captain. The most beautiful passages in the book are lyrical descriptions of the sea. The story ends with Arion's prayer to his muse for unity between the natural and the human worlds: "May music bind the sky, the earth, the sea / In tune, in harmony."

—Bruce King and

Surjit Dulai

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Seth, Vikram

SETH, Vikram

SETH, Vikram. Indian, b. 1952. Genres: Novels, Poetry, Travel/Exploration. Career: Sr. Ed., Stanford University Press, California 1985-86. Publications: Mappings (poems), 1980; From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, 1983; The Humble Administrator's Garden (poems), 1985; The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse, 1986; From Heaven Lake, 1987; All You Who Sleep Tonight (poetry), 1990; Beastly Tales from Here and There (animal fables), 1992; Three Chinese Poets (translations), 1992; A Suitable Boy (novel), 1993; Arion and the Dolphin (libretto), 1994; An Equal Music, 1999. Address: c/o Irene Skolnick Agency, 22 W. 23rd St., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10010-5211, U.S.A.

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"Seth, Vikram." Writers Directory 2005. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Seth, Vikram." Writers Directory 2005. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/seth-vikram

"Seth, Vikram." Writers Directory 2005. . Retrieved December 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/seth-vikram

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Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

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Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
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