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In Satirical 'Severance,' A Stricken Country Works Itself To Death

Ling Ma was in the last months of a tedious office job when she began writing her first novel. The company was downsizing, and as her coworkers got laid off, the office became "silent and desolate," Ma recalls.

Eventually Ma lost her job, too. The first few weeks were liberating — she called her unemployment check her "arts fellowship" — and she turned her attention to her debut novel.

Severance is a satire about immigration, 21st-century office work ... and also the apocalypse. Candace Chen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, is a production coordinator for a Bible manufacturer in China. She works out of New York and when a fatal disease wipes out most of the U.S. population, Candace is the last one left at the office.

Those who fall ill with Shen Fever perform repetitive tasks until they drop dead — a mother resets the same table over and over, retail workers fold and refold their wares. "It typically takes some action from their former lives and forces the victims to repeat it," Ma explains.

Interview Highlights

On her inspiration for Shen Fever

Shen fever is named after Shenzhen, China which is a manufacturing hub. I was thinking about factory work and the nature of the repetitive actions of factory work — just the same gestures over and over. And I was also thinking [of] Candace's ... work routine — waking up, making coffee, getting on the train, getting to the office — just that repetition. I wanted to somehow unleash that and maybe exaggerate it and amplify it somehow upon the whole world.

On how a story about the apocalypse became a book about capitalism

This novel started as an apocalyptic sort of short story and I had a lot of fun sort of just knocking things over, destroying things ... just thinking about how the buildings might stop working, and how the public transit might slow down, and how people would have to stop working. To me, it was a very gleeful short story but there was also this undercurrent of anger and I tried to source that anger back to its origin which had to do with work, which had to do with capitalism, which had to do with working in an office.

On Candace — whose parents have died, and who doesn't speak fluent Chinese — mirroring her own mother's fears

When I immigrated to the U.S. at the time I was an only child. I was a product of the one-child policy. And I remember that one of my mother's fears was that something would happen to herself or my father. I would be completely estranged in this country and that if I lost touch with my language, with Mandarin, if I lost touch with Chinese culture, even if I were to try to return to China it would be really difficult. So I think in a way I had Candace Chen embody my mother's fears.

On the human toll of manufacturing

How do I make the effects of global capitalism more visible? Often when I buy a shirt or something from H&M I'm completely cut off from the manufacturing side of things. I don't know how things are made. I don't know [how] they're shipped. I don't know the personal toll that it takes to make something — and I wanted that to be more visible. And I wanted that to be like a disease that inflicts the world some way.

Connor Donevan and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.