Browse Winners

2019 Winner

Eighteenth Annual Award
Severance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
By Ling Ma

Severance is a novel of multitudes. It is a portrait of the immigrant experience, an end-of-the-world meditation, and a darkly comic critique of late capitalism. It opens in an alternate 2011, wherein a disease called Shen Fever has overtaken most of the global population, turning infected people into zombies who mindlessly attempt to continue performing the repetitive tasks of their everyday existence. The protagonist, Candace Chen, has finally abandoned her desk job and New York City, joining up with a group of survivors led by a micro-managing former IT guy named Bob who has cult-like leadership instincts. As the group journeys toward a supposedly safe haven outside of Chicago, the narrative shifts between Candace's past and present: her lonely upbringing as a first-generation Chinese immigrant and the death of her parents, her uninspiring publishing career overseeing the production of specialized Bibles, and her failed relationship with a writer-boyfriend who left the city at the beginning of the contagion and who is most certainly dead.

Winner of the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award and the Kirkus Prize, Severance has received critical acclaim and been included on multiple "Best of 2018" lists. The New York Times calls the novel "a semi-surreal sendup of a workplace and its utopia of rules" and says that "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." NPR calls the novel "a wicked satire of consumerism and work culture" and praises Ma's "admirable restraint . . . never giving in to tired clichés or overwrought sermonizing."

Ling Ma was born in Sanming, China, and grew up in Utah, NB, and Kansas. She attended the University of Chicago and received an MFA 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. She lives in Chicago.

Judges: Hernán Díaz, winner of the 2018 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for In the Distance; students from the VCU MFA in Creative Writing Program; and the First Novelist Committee

Finalists: Lydia Kiesling for The Golden State (MCD Books) and Andrew Martin for Early Work (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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