Rishi Goyal

Published On


Page Range

pp. 183–202


  • English

7. The Fiction of the Empty Pandemic City

Race and Diaspora in Ling Ma’s Severance

  • Rishi Goyal (author)
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed or reminded us of the biopolitical assemblage: biology and politics have grown ever increasingly intertwined in the last two centuries as populations become the site and raison d’etre of political power. Pandemic fictions, an increasingly popular genre, help mould and imagine this constellation. Unlike other dystopic or catastrophic imaginaries, pandemic fiction often portrays an emptied but intact city. While we see this in films like the 2007 I am Legend, the 2013 video game The Last of Us and the 2018 novel Severance by Ling Ma, we have also read about this in countless news reports during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But while the pandemic city is empty of some people, it is full of others. Because of racialized capitalism and uneven geospatial distribution, wealthy white urbanites were able to flee New York City during the height of the coronavirus pandemic escaping the most dire effects of the virus, while the poorer brown and black inhabitants remained to get infected and die. In NYC, certain downtown neighbourhoods like SoHo and the West village were relatively emptied and suffered few coronavirus casualties; while others, like Harlem and Washington Heights, remained full and experienced significantly higher mortality rates. So the emptying of the city is a pandemic fiction that masks the uneven class and race effects of biological catastrophes. Through a reading of Ling Ma’s Severance, I want to explore how the fiction of the empty pandemic city emerges out of racist immigration, housing and public health history, and how it is linked to immigrant identity formation in a globalized world.


Rishi Goyal