Ling Ma on ‘Motherhood’, Jamaica Kincaid, and the Cooking Lesson She Got From Toni Morrison

Ling Ma on ‘Motherhood’, Jamaica Kincaid, and the Cooking Lesson She Got From Toni Morrison

Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

When the pandemic struck, Ling Ma’s dystopian Severance (Picador)—about a zombie apocalypse that plagues America following a pandmic—had fresh relevance, not least because she won a Whiting Award in March 2020, when the world went into lockdown.

It began as a short story on capitalism and work when Ma was laid off from her job as a Playboy fact-checker. Her unemployment checks were her “arts fellowship,” and she moved from Chicago to Ithaca to pursue her MFA at Cornell. The debut novel, which also won the Kirkus Prize and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, was a New York Times Notable Book, shortlisted for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and optioned for television.

Ma was born in Sanming, China and grew up in Utah and Kansas; teaches creative writing and English at the University of Chicago; worked in book production (including the Bible, like Severance’s protagonist, Candace Chen); once helped a supervisor write an online dating profile: and there’s a podcast devoted to her book. (Fun fact: the original title was Chinese Bibles.) Likes: ghost stories, PT’s Coffee, Terrace House. Dislikes: Twitter, scallions, most Abstract Expressionism.

The book that:

…made me weep:

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke.

…I recommend over and over again:

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow is still pretty underrated.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans, which I enjoyed and cracked me up.

…I’d pass on to a kid:

In my opinion, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is best appreciated when you’re in your chaotic 20s, so I’d gift this to someone young enough still to be enthralled by it.

…made me laugh out loud:

You can turn to any page in Kafka’s Diaries and get a laugh (and a cry) out of it. Even when he’s not trying to be funny, he’s funny.

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:

Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China would fare well as a cinematic adaptation. It’s a memoir by David Kidd about living within an aristocratic family on the eve of the Communist Revolution. Seems like a film Zhang Yimou would have made in the ‘90s. The ending was very hard to read.

…I last bought:

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. It’s such an intelligent, restless book, opening up many lines of conversation about being Muslim in a Western (Christian, capitalist) world. One of those books that makes me see a little differently.

…has the greatest ending:

Motherhood by Sheila Heti. I won’t spoil it, except to say that the more I think about it, the better it gets. As for good short story endings, I’m a fan of Arthur Bradford’s “Beach Trip” and Miranda July’s “The Man on the Stairs.”

…should be on every college syllabus:

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. I still find it seething, urgent, and constructed with rhetorical moves that students can learn.

…I brought on a memorable trip:

I remember picking up Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis at SFO airport after touching down. I got sick and read it while bedridden during what was supposed to be a holiday vacation. The book’s horror scenes converge with memories of that trip.

…I consider literary comfort food:

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, and My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris.

…I could only have discovered at:

I found a first-edition Mrs. Caliban, along with many out-of-print titles by Rachel Ingalls, at John K. King Books in Detroit. It’s a used bookstore housed in a multi-storied warehouse.

…surprised me:

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. The penultimate chapter was so unexpected.

…I’d want signed by the author:

The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. When I was in high school, this was the book I checked out most frequently from the library.

…that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:

The only recipe I remember from a book: You lay peeled tangerines on top of a radiator, until its inner skin gets thin and crackly and the fruit gets even juicier. From Serve it Forth by M.F.K. Fisher. Also, a cooking tip that’s stayed with me: When making soft-boiled eggs, you take the pot off right before the air bubbles grow into the size of marbles. From Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. My favorite book of food writing, however, might be Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin.

If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be…

I used to shelve books at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library when I was in high school, so I wouldn’t mind going back and living there. There’s a wonderful small café inside and a stately study room.

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