I don’t read dystopias. Not until now, that is. It might be because dystopias can be too grim or too cynical. I’ve heard from way too many people that after the election, they’ve foregone reading dystopian novels because it is just too real. And it’s true; there is already too much death around us.
Yet dystopia has also never seemed quite so tenderly introspective. Dystopian novels often give profound insight on a death from without — tyranny and totalitarianism birthed by patriarchy in “The Handmaid’s Tale”, pyromania in “Fahrenheit 451”, or technocracy in “Brave New World”. Ma’s dystopia is not so nihilistic, but is sobering. It is a death from within, layered with themes of belonging and separation. It is a discourse on memory. Almost like a reverse-engineering of “The Giver”, a utopia formed by the withholding of memory and feeling. And the wit is endless. Ma gives us a migrant’s tale wrapped up in a dystopia of death by remembering, a critique of American capitalism that is told from the perspective of Candace Chen, a female protagonist who is a 1.5 generation Chinese American. Need I say more?
In “Severance”, the world is spinning into a deadpan chaos. Lonely, deserted, roaming with what seems like apparitions of a once gleaming city of a bustling and vibrant economy. This is what is left of New York City after the Shen Fever sweeps across the city and chases away any remaining survivors. In this milieu, Candace continues her regimented routine in a publishing company. She liaises with overseas Chinese factories — rumored to be the source of the microspores of Shen Fever — who print and source their Bibles. Candace, like the factory, goes on in her slavish, self-martyrdom way — as if she and the factory are competing with one another — the economic residue of the pandemic. The contexts of employees receiving irrefutable bonuses to perform work they don’t believe in, siphoned Bible production for cheap labor, and intractable corporate interests hacking at what remains of humanity until the world is at its whittling end, offer the grounds for satire at its damn best (with a Kirkus Prize to prove it). American capitalism has manufactured a hierarchical pyramid of products on which humans are perched on the top in their panoramic glass-windowed view. Fashioning humans into robots puts a completely new plot twist on the narrative of automatocracy.
The post-apocalyptic dystopia is obvious, the immigrant story, less. The two alternate, like threads intertwining, dancing with one another in complementary fashion. Candace gives us flashbacks of her past like tender, omniscient video montages. She tells of how her parents migrated to Utah in the 1980s by way of her father’s scholarship to pursue a PhD in Economics, her mother’s attempt to assimilate whilst feeling ripped out of her way of life socially and economically, her parents’ ambivalent shift in political identities as China was changing, and her separation from her parents as they sought stability in a foreign land. No one chooses to sever their ties or to leave their places of belonging. No one volunteers to be displaced. Displacement happens to those who have no other choice. In exploring her parents’ displacement, Candace is exploring her own.
Parent-child separation in the long journey of migration is no new narrative, whether it is a paper child, chain migration, or an asylum story. It happened to Candace, it happened to my brother and me, and it happens to many. There is no metric to the amount of loss that happens when children survive the womb only to be separated from their parents upon birth. It is no wonder Candace operates as a sort of floating nebula throughout the story. She spent part of her childhood disconnected from her lifeblood. She lived in Fuzhou while her parents lived in America. Once reunited, they were unrecognizable to one another. She watched her parents attempt to navigate a landscape while having been torn from their places of belonging.
Candace’s parents rented a bland, enclosed basement that smelled like cigarettes — what they could afford. Her mother could have been a successful accountant in Fuzhou, but instead became a lonely homebody passing time away. They stumbled their way through conversations at parties in the university only to end up finding some semblance of belonging in the Chinese immigrant church. They watched the Tiananmen Square Massacre on their TV box set. Their home was being torn in disarray. When people leave home, home does not ask for permission before it changes. Displacement is twofold. It happens when migrants are detached from their homes and when homes detach from the expatriate.
Ma also shows us that displacement begets displacement, especially when it is of the unresolved variety. Her parents die sequentially — her father first, then her mother — and on her mother’s deathbed, she tells Candace, “I just want for you what your father wanted: to make use of yourself ... No matter what, we just want you to be of use.” (Ma, 190) So Candace denies herself an unstable career as a photographer and instead works in a glass tower like the rest. She denies herself a place of belonging, like her parents denied themselves, because this is the life her parents bought for her. Displacement does not only happen by severance from places of belonging, displacement happens by inheritance.
When Candace’s boyfriend, Jonathan, expresses his intent to flee New York City because he is done with the mesmerizing spell of hyper-consumerism that the Chipotles, Urban Outfitters, and the Whole Foods cast to mask the likes of Wall Street, Candace cannot resonate. She does not understand why he has to resist a culture of decadence. Her parents survived so that she could meld into this system. Isn’t this thriving? Even as masses of the New York City serfdom flood out to spend their inevitable last days with their loved ones, Candace sticks to her familiar rhythm and performs her duties. She has no kin to return to and no place she calls home. Having grown up with a foot in Fuzhou and another foot in America, she belongs to neither. She sees them from the same distance. Fuzhou is a mirage of memories she is grasping for, which she calls the "Fuzhou Nightime Feeling", and New York City is a place she only sees clearly once she photographs it in its deserted state under her blog pseudonym, "NY Ghost". Ma begs the question whether this unrootedness is a byproduct of an inherited displacement, the natural posture of the subjects of the American machine, or both?
This kind of straddling the lines between ethnic and national identities is all too familiar because my parents too migrated out of the same political climate, and I also find myself straddling as I search for belonging in faith spaces as a Progressive Asian American Christian. Liz Lin said it best here. I am a product of the resilience of immigrants. I am a product of an immigrant church that partially raised me when my parents worked 14-hour days in order to put food on the table, clothes on my back, and an education. I am who I am because of the concerted efforts of immigrants. There is loyalty there. But when women and queer folk are disallowed access to the same spaces as men and hetero/cisgender folk, or when racial slurs are spouted out, inadvertent or not, calling these same immigrant spaces my home is difficult no matter how good mama’s cookin’ is.
Ma shows us that if there is any system people can simply exist in while being unrooted without ever having to find our sense of belonging, it is the American machine. We are anesthetized as capitalistic drones so that we never have to ask where we belong. We can drink the night away. We can over-indulge in hyper-consumerism. We can live lavishly. It makes displacement a condition we could live with and never have to confront. As this mindless assembly line culture disintegrates, Candace stays because she waits for her own undoing. “The truth is, I had stayed in the city as long as I possibly could. The whole time, I had been half waiting for myself to turn, to become fevered like everyone else.” (7)
Ma resolves this with her discourse on memory:
“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.” (160)
Ma shows that not all of us have the same relationship with memory even though memory may have the same cyclical relationship with us. Once NYC becomes enough of a ghost town, Candace voyages out with a group to an oasis — a mall in the Midwest — when a member of the group, Ashley, catches the fever. Candace and a few others plan a clandestine stop at Ashley’s house when it happens. When one catches the fever, they continue living while performing very familiar robotic tasks. Imagine a Gregorian chant, anthropomorphized. Ashley caught it while trying on clothes from her childhood closet. Ma shows us that for some, memories are so championed that our lives might meld into our memories like one infinite loop. We can be so caught up within our pasts, that life never truly begins in present reality. Though not victim to the fever, Candace remembers her mother in this light, forever imagining what life could have been in Fuzhou after transplanting to America.
Then there is Candace’s relationship with memory. Her past always made her feel estranged. The memories play in an infinite loop but they were not memories of home or belonging. They were memories where identity was difficult terrain to navigate. Ironically, as she waited for her own disintegration, she comes up empty and she is faced with reckoning with her own disconnected past and her inherited displacement. She is confronted by her mother’s life of what if’s and could have been’s — forever being stuck in the present because of an unreconciled past. While looking back, she also sees her father. “My father rarely spoke of the past, and perhaps it was only after having officialized his severance from China that he felt free to speak openly of his life there.” (188) A past deprived of belonging does not have to define our life going forward.
Finding my place has neither been easy nor inconsequential. I grew up running away from my heritage, from my language, and from my face. Being placed in bilingual classrooms put a target on my head for bullies. Finding the church compelled me to paint my parents’ Chinese traditions with stigma and as vapid. Attending a predominantly white evangelical institution for college polarized me from my own yellow face, led me on a long journey searching for belonging in whiteness, and nurtured seeds of colorism and racism within me. Finding belonging in whiteness was the first time I felt acceptance, a drastic contrast to the shame and guilt I felt as Asian American. The more familiar I became to white, male theologians like John Piper, N.T. Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, etc., the more I championed white, male evangelical heroes like Billy Graham or Jim Elliot or Rick Warren, and the more articulate in American literary classics like Steinbeck, Twain, or Hemingway, the more cultural clout I accumulated. It was part of the brand. Conservatism came with it.
When I began to see that the stories of this brand of white evangelical Christianity was charged with undertones that often times erased my heritage, vandalized my face, and denied someone with my and my ancestors’ stories a seat at the table, I realized that acceptance was not the same as belonging. I began to search for belonging in my own skin by parsing through my past and listening to the stories of my parents. Remembering my individual and collective past allowed me to place myself and to ask myself what it meant to be free in being both Asian American and Christian. I began to question the dominant power structures of our day. I began reading marginal stories, believing the stories of marginal people, and allowing marginal theologies and histories a seat at the table in my own life.
Some say to find the summary of a book, you have only to read the first chapter or even the first page. In Ma’s case, it is the first sentence. “After the End came the Beginning.” (3) Shen Fever and its death by remembering is itself an irony. It isn’t the remembering that kills us, but it is when we allow our past to write our futures. It is when we allow our lack of belonging, collective identity, or our displacement disempower us from finding belonging. Remembering plays both as lullaby and as alarm at once. Memory is at the heart of our wake from slumber, connecting past and present, in order for a new beginning.
The dystopia is the perfect form of truth-telling here because it subverts a foreboding end. It says the end does not suggest devastation, but a new dawn. Our memories are but shadows produced by the refraction of light. Darkness suggests light like the end suggests a beginning. Without it, light could exist and we would not know. Ma shows us that moving forward, for the disconnected and displaced, requires us to thoughtfully clamor for our memories no matter the filth we might rake out, the callous we develop on our fingertips, or the bloody scrapes of our hands. Our beginning only starts when we are able to sever ourselves from such a restrictive legacy of belonging. Only then can we write our own legacy.