Humanities Conversation Centers on Ling Ma's Novel "Severance"

Humanities Conversation Centers on Ling Ma's Novel "Severance"

Ling Ma

Ling Ma’s award-winning debut novel about an epidemic, Severance, has found new resonance amid the coronavirus outbreak. In an online conversation anchored by her novel, Ma and Paola Del Toro (AB’20), will discuss “The President Told Us All to Go Shopping” on June 11 at 6 p.m. CDT hosted by the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in Creative Writing.

Published in 2018, Severance was inspired by emergencies of a lesser scale: the 2002 SARS epidemic, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2011 snowpocalypse that closed Chicago businesses and schools. “I thought about how companies would react when these catastrophes happened,” said Ma, AB’05, an assistant professor of practice in the arts in the University of Chicago’s Program in Creative Writing. “I thought about my jobs, how people interact in the workplace and the power hierarchies. And how the media metabolizes larger-than-life events, trying to create a narrative for us in real time.”

A post-apocalyptic satire, Severance used the fictional “Shen Fever” to both skewer capitalism and reframe the immigration narrative of its Asian-American protagonist. Ma’s work earned critical acclaim, and now has won her one of the country’s largest literary award for emerging writers.

For Ma, the reality of the COVID-19 outbreak is even wilder and weirder than her fiction. “I never predicted what’s happening now,” she said. “I’m working from home and watching the news like anyone else.”

Critically praised and widely read, Severance won the 2020 Whiting Award, the 2018 Kirkus Prize, and the 2019 Young Lions Fiction Award, as well as spots on best-of lists in the New York Times and NPR.

Ma remembers her years at UChicago as fundamental to her development as a writer. “I took workshops on poetry, fiction, and performance arts, as well as many film courses,” Ma said. “It was a very inspiring time, and I felt like I could see connections between all the disciplines I studied.” That sense of interdisciplinary creativity came to life in Severance.

The seed for the novel started germinating when Ma worked at a company that was downsizing and eventually closed its Chicago office. As she watched the process unfold, Ma started thinking about the meaning and nature of work. Severance builds on those thoughts to serve as a meditation on labor in the age of global capitalism.

For Del Toro’s critical analysis of Severance in her UChicago thesis “‘The President Told Us All to Go Shopping:’ Late Capitalist Rupture and Immigrant Recovery in Ling Ma’s Severance,” she received the Janel Mueller prize. Del Toro and Ma will discuss the novel, Del Toro’s thesis about it, and their artistic and critical work in the context of the moment. Adrienne Brown, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, will moderate their conversation. Brown supervised Del Toro's thesis. To attend, please go to this link and register:

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June 5, 2020