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Ling Ma wins the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for ‘Severance’

July 2, 2019

Text reads: Cabell First Novelist Award 2019 Nov. 12, 2019
Illustration by Emily Kundrot

Ling Ma has won the 2019 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. Her winning book, “Severance,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, tells the survival story of an isolated young woman in New York City who is the last person to abandon her office job after an infectious diseaseoriginating in China sweeps across the globe.

Ma will receive the award Nov. 12 at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she will give a reading and participate in a roundtable and panel discussion with VCU students and the public. The event will be held at the James Branch Cabell Library Lecture Hall (Room 303) at 7 p.m. For additional details, visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu/event/.

Ma was one of three finalists for the prize, now in its 18th year. The other finalists were Lydia Kiesling for “The Golden State” and Andrew Martin for “Early Work.”

According to the publisher’s official synopsis of “Severance”:

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.

So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?

A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s “Severance” is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.

Winner of the 2019 New York Public Library Young Lions Award and the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, “Severance” has received critical claim and been included on multiple “Best of 2018” lists.

A New York Times review called the novel “a semi-surreal sendup of a workplace and its utopia of rules.” A review in The New Yorker said: “Ma is at her most deft when depicting [...] the amputation of the immigrant’s past, preserved like a phantom limb whose pain is haunted with absence.” And an NPR review called it “a wicked satire of consumerism and work culture” and praised Ma’s “admirable restraint [...] never giving in to tired clichés or overwrought sermonizing.”

Ma was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in Utah, Nebraska and Kansas. She attended the University of Chicago and received an M.F.A. from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and an editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, VICE, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and other publications. A chapter of “Severance” received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. Ma lives in Chicago.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award celebrates the VCU M.F.A. in Creative Writing program’s yearlong novel workshop, the first in the nation and one of the few still in existence. The winning author receives a $5,000 prize. Travel expenses and lodging are also provided for the author and two additional panelists, most often the agent and editor of the winning book, who will attend an evening of events that focus on the creation, publication and promotion of the winning novel.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is presented on behalf of VCU’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. Sponsors include the James Branch Cabell Library Associates, VCU Libraries, the VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Over 100 novels were submitted for this year’s prize. A universitywide panel of readers in addition to members of the Richmond community reduced the list to three finalists. The finalists were then considered by a panel of judges consisting of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing students, the First Novelist Committee and the winner of the previous year’s award.

In addition to Ma, recent winners of the award have included Hernan Diaz for “In the Distance,” Jade Chang for “The Wangs vs. the World,” and Angela Flournoy for “The Turner House.” A full list of winners can be found at www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu/winners/.

The 2020 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award is currently accepting rolling submissions for debut novels published in 2019, with a final submission deadline of Dec. 30. For more information, visit www.firstnovelist.vcu.edu.

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