A global pandemic has just decimated the world’s population. You’re one of the survivors. What should you do? The answer, if you’re Candace Chen, is to keep doing a job you hate.

Ling Ma's book Severance

Ling Ma’s debut novel, published in 2018, opens at a moment when the majority of Earth’s inhabitants have been stricken with a fungus that dooms them endlessly to repeat such familiar tasks as getting dressed, setting the table, or sending email. Described by one critic as a zombie apocalypse novel crossed with an immigrant novel crossed with a coming-of-age novel, Severance is all of these in a form that’s compulsively readable. It’s also a love song to New York City.

The truth? While browsing in a bookstore, we picked up Severance on account of its eye-catching cover. Then we read the entrancing opening sentence. When we took it up to the counter to pay, the clerk said, “That’s the best book I read all year.”

There’s a less cheeky answer, too. For one thing, Severance is a horror story about a global pandemic that no longer seems as far-fetched as it once might have. In this novel, the real danger is posed not by zombies but by late capitalism — the cruelty and alienation it foists on overly pliant, unreflective workers.

Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover.

Ling Ma, author of Severance

Born in China, Ling Ma grew up in Utah and Kansas and earned an MFA from Cornell University. Severance won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, a New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award. Ma’s second book, a collection of stories titled Bliss Montage, is set to be published in September. She lives in Chicago.

“I think decidedly that Candice is not heroic. I just wanted to show an employee, a worker, someone who follows directions to maybe their absurd end,” says Ling Ma in her three-question Living Writers podcast.

Meet Ling Ma at Colgate on Sept. 8

We’re sorry that you missed Ling Ma’s visit. If you’d like to see an archived copy of her presentation, please join the Living Writers mailing list.

Tell Us What You Think

We’re sorry that you missed our Sept. 6 faculty roundtable and discussion of Severance. You can listen to a recording of the first 20 minutes below. Guests included CJ Hauser, associate professor of English, and Yang Song, associate professor of economics. 

Follow the discussion on Twitter @ColgateLW using the hashtags #ColgateLivingWriters and #Severance

Go Beyond the Book

  • The New Yorker praises Ling Ma for transcending the tropes of dystopian fiction, “a genre that, with its fixation on the fate of civilization, has a tendency to produce protagonists meant to stand in for society at large.” 
  • “Art that’s critical of capitalism (or any political or economic system) can turn didactic and humorless very quickly, and Severance never does,” says NPR’s critic.
  • “Just as my influences are pretty eclectic, my arrival at Severance’s narrative structure was a bit haphazard, too,” Ling Ma tells the Paris Review. “I trusted that by sheer enthusiasm and a dash of not knowing any better, this Frankenstein’s monster would come alive at the eleventh hour.”

New York is possibly the only place in which most people have already lived, in some sense, in the public imagination, before they ever arrive.


Living Writers is organized by the Department of English at Colgate University with generous support from the Olive B. O’Connor Fund as well as the President and Provost/Dean of the Faculty. 



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