During the Second World War, the Cao family of Taishan and the Tong family of Kunming severed their homeland ties, fleeing for the Yunnan-Burma border as Japanese troops flooded into China.
As is well-documented by historians, the scene was apocalyptic. Factories emptied and crumbled. Taishan workmen tore apart railway tracks, shattering metal to hinder enemy movement. Brutalized corpses were dumped into rivers as civilians slept in the street, swaddled only in frayed cotton. Riding towards the borderlands, in a wooden cart rocking with the weight of squabbling toddlers, the eldest Tong daughter glanced out at the surrounding dirt roads. Dead soldiers clogged up the path ahead, their heads like split watermelons.
In a new world, both families raised two generations. Their children only knew the perpetual summer of Yangon, flourishing in diaspora communities that ate bok choy alongside bowls of mohinga. The Cao brothers fished at the local river, learning to steam flounder with ginger, scallions and soy sauce, while their mother bellowed specifications in Hokkien, a dialect none of them spoke. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the Tong descendants groaned their way through daily Chinese lessons, ink bleeding through paper when they pressed too hard, or fudged the flick of a radical.
I wonder if the children felt a sense of dislocation when they parroted Cantonese folk songs, or hugged dirtied toys salvaged from a house that lay decaying beyond the thanaka trees. If they looked on curiously as their parents developed a sensibility that was almost slavishly survivalist: a hoarding of tongues, rituals and modes of behaviour that kept the memory of a cast-off world alive.
In the nineties, Guo Jun of the Caos and Cecilia of the Tongs settled down together in Western Sydney. A few years, later they had me. “In Sydney, the milk had a new taste”, Mum tells me. “It was fuller, fattier. Like nothing in China or Burma.” It wasn’t just the milk. Sydney promised a new house, a new child, a new world. A clean break, this time.
In Ling Ma’s debut novel Severance, the world literally ends.
Cranes, bereft of their operators, fall from the sky. Power grids sputter out, engulfing New York City in black. Ghetto palms bloom from concrete facades. But unlike the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic dystopias of The Walking Dead, World War Z or The Road, the bleakness of Ma’s deteriorating world is almost comedic in its deadpan absurdity. There are no zombies, adjacent brain-eating monsters or spurts of violence between nomadic gangs. Only a disease called “Shen Fever”, which causes victims to uncontrollably repeat familiar rituals until their jaws rot off or they’re shot by pitying survivors. The scenes depicting the effects of the plague are horrific but deeply farcical, as the “fevered” die folding clothes, setting the table or drinking mouldy juice.
Ma’s lampooning of human rituals is heightened by the book’s decidedly millennial focus. During the first phase of the disease, she follows the Internet generation as they continue attending their office jobs in gas masks, commentate on hurricanes with frantic hashtags and covet the latest high-end antifungal fashions. When the apocalypse truly sets in, they maintain their air of disaffection, stockpiling “bottled water and exfoliating body wash and iPods and beers and tinted moisturizer in [their] stolen Jeeps”. While Google lasts, they search “how to shoot gun”, “Maslow’s pyramid” and “7 stages of grief”.
All this is crystallised in Severance’s protagonist Candace Chen, an amateur photographer and Visual Studies graduate who ends up applying for a more “practical” job at a publisher that produces her favourite line of art books. But her balanced goals are immediately derailed when her employer informs her that the company is no place for artists. Candace ends up overseeing the manufacture of speciality bibles, the holy bestseller repackaged with new gloss under titles like: The Outdoors Bible (for nature-lovers seeking a more durable option); The Alternative Bible (“featuring a blank cover and packaged with Sharpie markers, for the alt-Christian teens to decorate”); and The Gemstone Bible (for pre-teen girls, with a semiprecious gemstone attached!).
Somewhat of a cipher, Candace and her Sisyphean trials at first appear at to be an extended, cynical punchline about the Hopes and Dreams of twentysomething creatives eking out a soul-crushing existence within corporate spheres. But the struggles of Ma’s first-gen immigrant lead quickly develop into something more profound, as Candace’s mindless observance of ritual comes to define the way she adapts to new environments. When Candace holds a bible, she doesn’t think of the significance of its words. She thinks of the faux-leather polyurethane material she ordered from an Italian company that supplies to Forever 21 and H&M. She thinks of the Swiss paper, and its path of delivery from Hong Kong ports to Shenzhen factories. After Shen Fever kills off most of the population, this is how Candace continues to understand the world. When she finds a Daily Grace Bible in the home of a fevered family, she can’t help but consider the sateen ribbons and the cheap, copper-hued spray edges. Observing the wreckage of looted stores and abandoned homes, Candace immediately identifies Kiehl’s cleaners, Annick Goutal perfumes, Nike sneakers and fake Chinatown Chanel sunglasses, still chained to the rhythms of production, brand-recognition and consumerism.
Even before the apocalypse, the past clings to Candace like smoke. Having left Fuzhou when she was five and with both parents dead, Candace feels completely cut off from her birthplace, treated as a foreigner by her Chinese co-publishers. But while overseeing the manufacture of the Gemstone bibles, Candace soon discovers that the Shenzhen workers who grind and polish the semiprecious stones have developed lung disease from inhaling gem dust — a dilemma that bothers none of her Western peers. Everywhere she goes, Candace can’t escape the spectre of her pre-immigrant life and its ugly marriage to her new home, even as she performs innocuous tasks like browsing lingerie racks at Henri Bendel:
I wondered about the manufacturing process. Such beautiful frivolities could only be produced by specialty artisans in Italian foothills, fed a diet of soft, runny cheeses and flowered honey. Maybe nuns. I touched a Victorian-style lavender teddy and glanced at the label sewn in the back: Made in China. Of course it was. I looked at a powder-blue camisole printed with bluebells. Made in Bangladesh. And a set of panties. Made in Pakistan. No matter where you go, you can’t escape the realities of this world.
The act of severance is never clean. It’s a world-ending act; a traumatic excision of familiar connections and deep-rooted ways of life. It leaves wounds that refuse to cauterize, sprouting new flesh that melds grotesquely with the old.
Driving was my mother’s favorite American thing, and she drove in a very American way: fast, down empty freeways before rush hour, skimming through cathedral canyons and red rock, her long black hair billowing everywhere, like in the movies. Why move to America if you can’t drive? she’d say.
In Sydney, my young parents spent most of their time driving. The West, unlike the hilly reaches of the East and the sharp bends of the Inner-West, is markedly flat, a sprawl of long roads flecked with family homes and grassy expanses. For the first time, Mum bought her own car, cruising down the M4 or the Hume Highway with The Carpenters blaring. For most of my childhood, Dad insisted we made the 40-minute drive to Narellan every Christmas, just to see the double-storey homes aglow in kaleidoscopic lights, animatronic Santa statues waving from front yards with rooster-shaped hedges.
The roads, the hedges, the lights — everything was strange, exciting, alien. Living in farms and flats their whole lives, they now owned a backyard with a banana tree. They had an outdoor kitchen, where Dad made his own chilli, and jam out of mulberries. They had a white neighbour that took them out for steak at the local R.S.L. But despite this new equilibrium, the same survivalist sensibility bled into everything they did.
In our home, almost five dialects were spoken — English, Mandarin, Burmese, Cantonese and Yunnanese, lilting vowels veering into short ones, sentences rapidly shifting as emotions ran high. I learnt old Burmese limericks and feasted on ohn no khauk swe every New Year’s, while being forced to recite Chinese poetry at regional competitions. My parents, raised by families who survived multiple wars, began hoarding anything remotely useful. Bacterial wipes, plastic bags, stools, napkins, pumpkin seeds, bedcovers, water bottles — everything was bought in bulk and recycled. No food was to go to waste, with even leftover bones salvaged for our dog. But their favourite thing to hoard of all was their children’s talents. Working long hours in kitchens, child care centres and packing plants, the Christmas lights and the friendly neighbour started to lose their gleam. Now, we were their dream, with our academic trophies, our piano-playing and our law degrees, ready to fulfil the promise of a new world.
Addressing the rise of dystopian fiction, Jill Lepore in her New Yorker article ‘A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction’ states that a dystopia “can be apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, or neither, but it has to be anti-utopian, a utopia turned upside down, a world in which people tried to build a republic of perfection only to find that they had created a republic of misery”. In Severance, Candace’s parents come to America for the luxury of driving with no purpose, for indulgences that signalled an ill-defined “better life”. When their hopes deteriorate and their past lives become harder to bear, they simply double their efforts, passing their anxieties and utopian endeavours to the girl they’ll leave behind. “I just want for you what your father wanted”, Candace’s mother tells her, “to make use of yourself…no matter what, we just want you to be of use”.
As civilization abruptly ceases to function, Candace is thrown into turmoil as her ritualistic existence as a “millennial drone” is upended. The non-linear structure of Severance reflects this, as Ma seamlessly merges various forms of tense, points-of-view and time-frames to piece together Candace’s fragmented psyche. All dialogue in the novel is reported speech, raising questions about what is really being said and what is merely remembered.
In one chapter, the narration shifts from first person to third, following the lives of Candace’s parents. The chapter, which details the couple’s fledgling marriage and anxious attempts to assimilate, feels like a brief, omniscient glimpse into people Candace herself can’t fully comprehend. But halfway through, the narrative voice jolts back to first person, with Candace stating: “When she told stories, I tried to record them, though it was not always me to whom she thought she was speaking.” How much of this chapter is truth, and how much is Candace’s struggle to comprehend the past and the patchwork identity she’s inherited?
Like the narrative’s linearity, this identity is constantly in flux. On her trips for business, Ma constructs surreal, crudely Westernised-spaces to highlight Candace’s disorientation. She stays at a hotel with a comically overblown and orientalised name, “The Grand Shenzhen Moon Palace Hotel”, which boasts a complete lack of discernible identity: abounding in tennis courts, English-style rose gardens and feudal iron gates. When touring the markets of Hong Kong, Candace feels a warm rush of recognition seeing children drinking sugarcane juice like she did as a child, but is simultaneously drawn to the 7-Eleven across the street, “a beacon of American summer”. The store’s interior epitomises the fragmented identity of a child growing up with a tapestry of countervailing influences. The fluorescence of the convenience store is “cooling” and “life-affirming”, reminding her of the 7-Elevens back home. But like a Claire Danes photo that she spots taped to the wall of a Shenzhen factory, Candace is fixated on mutated American-Chinese forms that echo her hybrid identity:
I paced up and down the tidy aisles, stocked with American products in Asian flavors. Squid-flavored potato chips. Cherry-blossom Kit Kats. From among the orderly rows of lychee juice cans and soy-milk cartons and neon aloe vera juice bottles with floating pulp, I selected a Pepsi. Thank you, come again, the cashier deadpanned in English.
In Ma’s apocalypse, generations can’t break free of the past. Helplessly and deliberately, they devote themselves to rituals and traumas that are inherited through bloodlines, scrambling for a place in an alien, ever-shifting world. “With apocalyptic narratives, it's the illusion of the sudden blank slate. The whole slate is wiped clean, you can begin anew, and get it right this time”, Ma stated in an interview with the L.A. Times. “But what happens…is that the old power structures in some way replicate themselves.”
Social structures are replicated, as seen in the band of survivors Candace joins, where a tyrannical former IT-specialist named Bob forms a micro-patriarchy. But intimate habits are replicated too. A survivor passing her hometown is helplessly drawn down a familiar trail to her childhood bedroom, while another is drawn to the mall he used to ritualistically peruse as a neglected child. In the past, Candace is compelled by spirit bills she finds in a market stand. Like her ancestors before her, she burns the paper money for her parents in the afterlife
Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.
I watch as Dad brings burns food and spirit bills for my Nainai. He’d brought things he knew she’d like: pork buns, pomegranate juice, seaweed chips. The sight is so familiar that it's only later that I process its oddness. Ever since coming to Australia, my father has been a baptised Christian. An afterlife where you can receive a Fendi handbag if your grandchildren burn it on a shrine for you? This should be bunk to him. But watching Dad, with his head slightly bowed and his mouth whispering animatedly about his day, I know this ritual is a part of him. It’s something he’ll repeat in an infinite loop – and something I will, too.
Claire Cao is a writer from south-west Sydney. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Voiceworks, Sine Theta, Sweatshop Women and Co-Curious’ Behind Closed Doors program. Follow her on Twitter @clairexinwen.