First Time Author Reads from Debut Novel at BBC

University of Chicago assistant professor and author of "Severance," Ling Ma spoke about her choice to write about zombies instead of immigrant narratives at the Biscayne Bay Campus’s 2020 Writers on the Bay event. Photo courtesy of FIU Flickr.

Guido Gonzalez/Staff Writer

Ling Ma spoke about her choice to write about zombies and office work instead of immigrant narratives at the Biscayne Bay Campus’s 2020 Writers on the Bay event. 

Ma was born in Fujian, China and lived in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas before settling in Chicago, where she works as an assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of Chicago.

The first-time novelist strove to create a story that avoided a topic that many Asian American authors focused on while she was growing up. 

“The only fiction books written by Asian American authors were all immigrant narratives in the 90s,” she said. “So I really resisted that and I wrote about zombies and office work instead.”

Ma’s debut novel “Severance” is a satirical apocalyptic tale focusing on capitalism, immigration, relationships and plagues.

The novel was released in 2018 to critical acclaim, winning the Kirkus Prize for fiction and earning a spot in the Best Books of 2018 list. 

Julie Wade, an FIU associate professor in the English department, organized the event where Ma read select excerpts from her novel and answered questions from the audience on Thursday, Feb. 6. 

“We have faculty members in creative writing who invite guests on a rotating basis,” he said. “My job is to inform the faculty members who get to pick their guests for the year, then they reach out to the guests on our behalf.”

Ma was invited to the event by Campbell McGrath, a poetry professor at FIU whom Ma was a former student of back in Chicago, and introduced her to the audience. 

“McGrath taught a quarter at the University of Chicago and I was in his workshop,” said Ma. “Years later, I got an email from him saying that he was at a bookstore and saw my book, and he invited me to FIU.”

After the Q&A session, Ma signed copies of her novels for both fans and for those whose curiosities were piqued by the unique story.

“This is a really big deal for us, that people get to meet and experience the work of living authors,” Wade said.  

Miles Harrison, an English major, had only read a few pages from “Severance” but was already hooked on the story.

“It was brought up to me by one of my professors that they were having this event,” he said. “I also heard what the book was about and I thought its story was interesting.”

Harrison was one of many who was intrigued enough to purchase the novel. 

“I actually purchased the book today,” Harrison said. “I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of it.”

Although her book was published back in 2018, Ma still cannot fathom the fact that a book she wrote is being sold in bookstores. 

“It’s still a weird feeling that something you worked on and thought about for four years is out in the world,” she said.

Despite having written and published a bestselling novel, Ma said she’s still learning what kind of writer she is and is only getting started in her writing career. 

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