Edited by Jane Hu and Anjuli Raza Kolb

Right Time, Right Place

Jane Hu and Anjuli Raza Kolb

Coolie Pathology

Eileen Ying

On Being a Person of Use

Amy R. Wong

The Tree at the End of the World

Eugenia Zuroski

Killing Us Softly

Aviva Briefel

Familiar Zombies

Dwight Tanner

Too Much to Miss

Summer Kim Lee

Undead Language

Lucia Tang

A Ghost with a Camera

Alix Beeston

Genre Fever

Aaron Bartels-Swindells and Jane Hu

Screen Time, or the Postviral Internet

Danielle Wong

Staying Alive

Dora Zhang


Severance, published in 2018, is about a fungal disease that originates in Shenzhen and takes down most of the world population in a few months. We probably don't need to tell you this. More than a few reviews, roundups, rec lists, book clubs, and group chats went wild over Severance in the early months of the pandemic. The New York Times cited "booming sales" alongside Camus's The Plague four days before New York City went into lockdown. Elated and annoyed, we were already obsessed with it. "Timely!" people twittered, about our various projects on race, capitalism, imperialism, disease, and immigration. We wondered if this was a compliment or a dismissal. What does it mean to make "timely" work that stretches back years and years? Is the assignation of a certain kind of "timeliness" also a way of reminding arrivistes of their temporary and uncertain status in criticism? In letters? In the West?

Severance's Candace appears to be the sort of blank, half-baked protagonist who would survive a global apocalypse by simply slipping through the cracks, not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her immunity and thus her ability to narrate the end of the world is circumstantial, a function of history and what it does to character, rather than of character per se. She is what Jane would call a "generic Asian" an Asian constituted by and through genre, an Asian of a recognizable type, and in this way, part of a typology that deflects depth and calls orthodoxies about literary subjectivity into question. Severance knows this, recognizes the Orientalist roots of this kind of literary instrumentalization: the heavy, persistent pathologization of the racial other. Much of the book interrogates the generic Asian's position, as the novel's assumptions about the world that swirls around her is changed by bodies like hers, the factories where they labor to make the world they're in but not of. Candace's own uncannily "timely" documentary blog, NY Ghost, hosts photographs of a rewilding New York that some viewers see as lurid and distasteful. Why is she there? By what right or trick or mandate? How did Ma predict the COVID-19 apocalypse? How did she document it before it happened?

As Asians working on timely topics, we've become aware of a shady grove of language around timeliness over these last months. Like Severance's Candace, we feel dis-ease with "coincidence," with being or having been in the "right place at the right time," as if it will have been advantageous, even devious to have found an area to think inside and around, a slice of research to take up, that suddenly becomes trendy for the very same reasons of systematic neglect and racial violence that brought us to these topics in the first place.

Talking about Andrea Hairston's work in an episode of the Black Mountain Institute's Severance Radio, Jenna Hanchey asks, "when the world comes to an end, whose world is it that is ending?" She points us to the "edges of chaos" as a place where marginalized writers wager "new worlds" that might also have new subjective centers. Our wager here is that Severance is not timely, but in fact historical, in the sense that it records what has to happen the pure catastrophe, the loss of life, the racism, the violence in order for that world-imagining to take place. It also imagines what to do when the new world looks so much like the old one, where to put nostalgia, how to countenance grief. Given the opportunism of syllabus-construction, and the increasing pressure to market undergraduate education to topics on the basis of their timeliness, we're guessing Ma's novel will be taught for a long time. What we hope each of the essays collected in this cluster offers is a model for how to approach Severance on its own terms, beyond its topical coincidence, beyond its timeliness. Together, our essays explore Severance as reflecting aesthetic, historical, and political economic conditions that long preceded and will outlast the height of the pandemic reordering of the world.

In this cluster, you will find essays that situate Severance in what we might call its "pre-times." Eileen Ying's "Coolie Pathology" contextualizes Ma's post-apocalyptic Asian zombies in a longer history of Asian coolie labor. Amy Wong's "On Being a Person of Use" presses into the uncomfortable continuities of the compulsion to work before, during, and after the end of the world. Eugenia Zuroski's "The Tree at the End of the World" traces a genealogy of the Ailanthus altissima a Chinese tree species whose colonial displacement in Anglo-American contexts might be read alongside certain wayward paths of Chinese diaspora.

The generic Asian is also fleshed out here by way of the zombie genre. Aviva Briefel's "Killing Us Softly: Shopping and Disaster in Ling Ma's Severance" articulates how capitalism already embeds its own demise by examining the relationship between shopping and zombies. Dwight Tanner's "Familiar Zombies" reads how Severance shows the limitations of generic tropes even science fictional ones to convey our current world order.

Other essays in our cluster draw out the nostalgic affordances of Severance, which is, after all, a historical novel, even if it does not describe a historical disease. These essays read Severance through a more personal register, as they seek to move to feel against the time of disaster capitalism. Summer Kim Lee's "Too Much to Miss" evokes the "leaving New York" essay genre only to turn it on its head. Lucia Tang's "Undead Language" plumbs the intimacy of estranged language, Sinology, the name, and the immigrant schoolkid's archive fever. Alix Beeston's "A Ghost With a Camera," unfolds the function of photography as a medium of intimacy, desire, communion, and poiesis.

As our present continues to unfold into our uncertain future, the essays in this cluster also seek to understand what it means to inhabit everyday life what new disastrous norms it presents right now. Aaron Bartels-Swindells and Jane Hu explore this through a collaborative dialogue about why Ma's heroine doesn't die (or, put another way, how she continues to live). Danielle Wong's "Screen Time, Or the Postviral Internet," draws our attention to the dual pressure exerted on and from social media in the novel and in our present. And finally, Dora Zhang's "Staying Alive" reflects on the relationship between the habitual rhythms of neoliberal work and the muted affect of Ma's single though not singular narrator.

Reading and rereading Severance before and during the pandemic has been a ghastly and exhilarating pleasure. What we share in fear and recognition with the novel, we've also shared with each other these last months. In this sense, Ma's novel has not just reflected the severances of the COVID-19 era, but also has created new tethers and new responsibilities.

Jane Hu is a PhD candidate in English and Film & Media at UC-Berkeley.

Anjuli Raza Kolb is Associate Professor at the University of Toronto. Her poems, translations, and essays have appeared in various venues, and her book, Epidemic Empire  is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in December. 

Past clusters