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Reading Ling Ma's Severance in the Middle of a Pandemic

Written by Samia Arni

Graphic by Sandra Tsang

CW: Minor spoilers


While the novel Severance by Chinese American author Ling Ma was published in 2018, the story has never felt more timely. The book centers around Candace Chen, a millennial living in New York City when the Shen Fever-a fungal infection from China- spreads across the world in biblical proportions, wiping out all but a few lone survivors.


On an initial reading, I was genuinely shocked at how accurately Ma predicts our current situation. From the pandemic that came from China to the descriptions of deserted New York City streets, the closing of Broadway and everyone fleeing to wherever they had the means. Even the throwaway lines from characters joking about severe precautions such as wearing masks paralleled the attitude of so many. There was also major commentary on our capitalist system in the way Candace continued to work despite society falling apart and being the only person left in her town. Candace’s character reminded me of what it feels like to be productive in this day and age when everything feels like it's falling apart; it allowed me to realize how plausible our current situation was prior to it actually happening. It left me seriously questioning how we were so unprepared to handle the pandemic, given that it was clearly a possibility.


The one thing that felt different (besides the fever causing society to completely collapse of course) was the exclusion of racism in the book. The story is set in 2011, not very far from our present, so the lack of discussion on the subject was quite surprising. However, one may argue that this aspect was refreshing, as it is a rare instance where an Asian character can just be themselves. While Chen’s culture is a major part of her life, it manages to add to her experience as a whole without being the main plot point.


Furthermore, the story heavily plays on the theme of nostalgia, alternating between Candace’s present reality and flashbacks before the disease hit. In these sections, Ma chronicles Candace’s experience as an immigrant from China, including her childhood in the city of Fuzhou, her move to the United States at the age of six after living with her grandparents, along with her first time visiting the country as an adult, long after her parents are gone. I found these parts to be the most profound, as they portrayed a side of the Asian American experience we don’t see often enough, and I believe that readers will deeply relate to this as well. We also get snippets of her days before the fever hit, from the mundane job she worked to her failed relationship. This aspect reminded me a lot of how we reminisce on our pre-pandemic lives even though they may have been far from ideal, raising the question of how we process our circumstances and move forward.


Though I did have my issues with some of the more technical storytelling elements, Severance is a highly thought out piece of speculative fiction that chronicles elements of the Asian American experience. One might wonder why someone would pick up a book about a pandemic while we are living through one, and it's a perspective I definitely understand. There is so much media covering the COVID-19 pandemic yet very little of it is actually done well. However, Severance suggests that maybe we shouldn’t completely brush off the genre as a whole. After all, we consume stories to make sense of the world we are in, and the novel precisely fulfills that purpose.

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