cover for severance by ling ma review

Uncomfortable Topics

  • Pregnancy and Abortion
  • Death – I mean, it’s a zombie apocolypse.

Set the Scene

Publishing Year: 2018
Author Nationality: American

Find the book here.

About the Author

This is the first book by American author Ling Ma. A great story all on its own of an immigrant experience, Ma grew up in China and has written for Granta, Playboy, Vice, ACM, the Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter, and others before this publication.

The Story

This story begins by following a woman who survived the apocalyptic flu that created a non-violent zombie. These zombies run in simple sequences that reflect their lives, do not harm anyone. Their bodies decay as they follow their 3 to 4 step routines without eating or sleeping.

The book bounces back and forth as she recounts her life leading up to the sickness, she reflects on her life under capitalism and struggles to look for options in the post-apocalyptic world.

Candice remembers growing up in China and recounts how she didn’t want to come to America, and later her love for America. Her parents had a hard time finding their place in the city, and her parents both pass away by the time she’s in her early twenties.

Under capitalism, Candice is numb and has trouble finding a life that will fit her or give her purpose. She flows one way or another depending on her friends. Her job is gifted by an older man she is sleeping with, and its slow fall apart during the pandemic is interesting to reflect on as offices open back up.

Working late for the sake of working late, office politics, friendships in early adulthood, all of it is reflected upon as unsustainable routine of the city. I don’t know how much is true, as I don’t feel that these obligations lessen to any greater degree in small towns.

In the post-apocalyptic world, the group structures itself around a man who slowly grabs more power, taking the group across the country to ‘a complex’ that turns out to be a mall. The man starts by enforcing daily schedules but escalated to trying to control Candice’s pregnancy.

My Take-Aways

Knowing Ourselves and Advocating

Pre-Apocolypse, Candice talks about giving up your dreams and losing yourself in the rhythms of daily life. She rarely speaks up for herself or advocates for what she’s thinking even though she has epic inner-monologue.

When she becomes pregnant she doesn’t make clear decisions on what to do with it while the world is still running, doesn’t ask the father of the child to get involved. If she’s unsure if she wants to get rid of it, it makes sense not to tell Jonathan. It’s against his ideals of freedom, and the way he lives his life does not level Candice feeling free, even if she isn’t sure what freedom means to her. But, when she meets the group, she keeps her condition a secret still.

If she’s unsure if she wants to get rid of it, it makes sense not to tell Jonathan. It’s against his ideals of freedom, and the way he lives his life does not level Candice feeling free, even if she isn’t sure what freedom means to her. But, when she meets the group, she keeps her condition a secret still. She is thinking of others and not fully how she will raise this child by herself.

There is the chilling-ly slow crumble of society, and Candice refuses to give up on things that gave her the routines she loves so dearly. Maybe she refuses to acknowledge her other options are slipping away? Does she decide that raising a child of her own in the apocalypse would give her the stability she needed to not slip away?

She doesn’t advocate for what she truly wants in her relationships. She has a hard time speaking up at her job, sourcing from factories that harm people in the country she was born in.

As she tries to find her voice post-apocalypse, she is not advocated for by many in the group, their silence and complicity leave her in a dangerous place having to work hard for a daring escape, no one brave enough to go with her.

Participation because it’s expected

Her slow crawl through her office life reminds me of how trapped I felt just before I took off on my digital Nomad years. How rigid some overarching routines can feel. I think more people need to take time to reflect on the voices their making with their lives contributions, and should make an effort to create a better planet with every chance they have.

How many people feel the pressure of pursuing capitalism, finding a soul-crushing job that isn’t a good fit, because of their parents’ sacrifices for giving us a better life?

She talks time and time again in the books bout finding freedom. She’s constantly taking stock of the options before her, even if she doesn’t pursue them. When Jonathan wanted to remove himself from society, she criticized the oppressiveness of working for someone else and needs more time in his day than a traditional 9-5 would allow.

She herself works in a job that causes harm to people she has removed herself from but came from. Sometimes she connects with her culture but she also deals with a huge amount of racism from the industry and the white roommate she has.

In the post-apocalyptic society, everyone reluctantly participates in a system, they ingrained it further and their need for a little bit of routine allowed them to lock away a pregnant woman for the duration of her pregnancy and enforce a new type of monarchy. Which ways do we allow our everyday routines to power systems that we find oppressive?

Creating Community and Connecting

Candice had a wide range of experiences, and there is much to learn here. Her parents worked very hard for her, and she reflects on her parents’ pains to bring her a better life. She makes painful observations about her parents’ efforts to assimilate into a country that she meanders through.

With little community and community building since she was a child, Candice struggles to make connections in early adulthood. Partying and superficial connections are the majority of her time.

Post-Apocolypse, they learn little about themselves, and none of them really have the skills or hobby-sets to make it outdoors. Not making connections, people using each other as resources instead of individuals and team members brings in patriarchal views of pregnant women. (See Garret Keizer Quote)

feminist book club quote, severance by ling ma
severance by ling ma quote in the feminist book club

…yet there is no hiding for her, nor any denying the feeling we have that somehow she belongs to us, that she embodies our collective future and represents our individual pasts.

Garret Keizer

Did you enjoy Severance by Ling Ma? If you like poetry, you should consider How to pronounce Knife by Souvankah Thammavongsa. If you’re just starting your feminist lit reading, you should check out Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

Get to know more about the Feminist book Club.