Almost all the women in THE FARM are mothers, and yet the mothers in the book cross lines of class and race. Please discuss the centrality of the theme of motherhood to THE FARM.
As you pointed out, almost every character in THE FARM is a mother, a surrogate mother, or someone desperate to become a mother. I was interested in exploring the lengths that mothers will go to give their children better lives. This holds true for the immigrant women in the book, who make huge sacrifices daily for their family—and often earn a living by taking care of other (wealthy) people’s kids. But this also holds true for the privileged women in the book. If you asked any of these mothers why they do what they do—why they chose to be clients of The Farm, why they left their sons and daughters back home in the Philippines—they’d answer that they did it for their kids. What compels them—a visceral love for their babies—is in its most basic sense the same, regardless of race, or class, or socio-economic status.
So, what makes the mothers in THE FARM so different from each other? Why do we disdain some and feel an affinity for others? Is it because of their race? Their class? Is it because of the power imbalance among them? Do we care that some mothers in the book can ensure that their kids have an edge starting in utero? Does it bother us that, regardless of how hard some of the mothers in the book work, their children’s lives will be defined more by the neighborhoods they were born in and the education-level of their parents than anything else?
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I returned to my alma mater, Princeton University, in April on a gorgeous spring day to tape the She Roars podcast with Margaret Koval. We had a great conversation about The Farm, motherhood, capitalism, and how we see–and fail to see–the people around us. You can hear it here:
Earlier this year, we named Joanne Ramos’ novel The Farm one of the season’s must-read new releases. In it, readers travel to a farm in the Hudson Valley called Golden Oaks. It is there that women who work as surrogates live in a plush but carefully controlled environment for the duration of their pregnancies. Ramos chatted with Bookish about her book’s complicated relationship with capitalism, motherhood, and the American dream.
When The Farm first landed at my doorstep, I was easily intrigued by what Joanne Ramos pieced together. From pregnancy rights to immigration, her novel – tinged with dystopian undertones – felt urgent as political nominees began to announce their candidacy for 2020.
Even though I expected to love it, the novel knocked me out. In her debut, which isn’t about politics, but about human rights on a larger scale, Ramos created a must read page-turner that offered readers an insight to what is happening now as well as what can happen in the future.
Nestled in Upstate New York, the titular farm, is where women in need of money can go to carry babies for the wealthy. The plot follows an immigrant from the Philippines in search for a more secure future.
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Joanne Ramos and I first met in a Ditmas writing workshop led by Rachel Sherman six years ago. There, Ramos shared the initial chapters of a novel, and her enormous talent clobbered me. The chapters introduced a Big Brother surrogacy farm, her vibrant characters, explored power dynamics, and beautifully rendered stories of Filipina caregivers. There’s one scene set in a swank Manhattan apartment (I won’t spoil it) that still has me holding my breath. After class, we became friends, swapping pages and commiserations as she tunneled deeper into the textured unfolding and unsettling landscape of The Farm.
Ramos worked in investment banking and private equity for many years, eventually transitioning into a staff writer role with The Economist. The path to publication for The Farm, Ramos’s first novel, has been a whirlwind fairytale, the kind writers dream about.
In February, I caught up with Ramos at her favorite coffee shop in Tribeca to talk about writing The Farm, her writing process, and pre-publication jitters.
The Farm, a gripping novel centered on a secretive retreat where poor women incubate the perfect babies of über-wealthy clients in exchange for life-changing fees, evolved from author Joanne Ramos’s own experiences. Raised in a tight-knit Filipino community in Wisconsin, she was shocked by the wealth she encountered at Princeton. After graduation, she began a high-paying career in finance, which moved her to the other side of the wealth divide. When she left her job to raise her kids, she found she felt more kin- ship with the Filipina nannies and housekeepers she met on play- dates than with her former coworkers. The women talked of leaving families behind, sleeping a dozen to a room in illegal dorms and hoping that someday their work would pay off for their children back home. “It was heartbreaking,” Joanne tells GH. “They viewed me as the American dream, but I felt guilty about their pride in me. Some people will never be able to change their lives, no matter how hard they work.”
She created the story of Jane, a jobless Filipina immigrant who is at first thrilled to be chosen to “host” a pregnancy, though she must leave her own baby with her cousin until she delivers. But as Jane’s bright new world tightens chillingly around her, she begins to fear the choice she’s made. “I wanted this to feel like something that could happen now,” says Joanne. As she tells it, the possibility may be more real than we think.
Joanne Ramos’ debut novel, The Farm, has a provocative premise: A posh resort in New York’s Hudson Valley offers fine meals and handsome remuneration to women, most of them financially struggling immigrants, willing to live in seclusion from their families and carry a baby to term for wealthy clients. We spoke with Ramos about her work.
Dystopian fiction is a genre that other authors have used to shine a light on the treatment of women. The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps the most famous example. Did you have previous books in mind that deal with similar topics as you wrote The Farm? And, in general, who are some of your literary influences?
It’s funny: The Farm has been called dystopian by many reviewers and readers, and yet, I didn’t set out to write dystopian fiction. I’m someone who grew up straddling worlds—as a Filipina immigrant to Wisconsin in the late 1970s, as a financial-aid kid at Princeton University, as a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance and as a mother with conflicted feelings about my generation’s zeal to give our children the “best” of everything. I’ve often felt like an outsider in my life—an uncomfortable place to inhabit, sometimes, but outsider-hood does give one a certain distance and perspective. It was this perspective that I wanted to write about in my book. My obsessions sprung from this perspective.
The world of The Farm is meant to be our world pushed forward just a few inches—far enough so that the reader can get a bit of distance from our current state, but not so far afield that she can dismiss it as “sci-fi” or highly improbable. Is that dystopian? I suppose it depends on your definition of dystopia.
I introduced The Farm to the world on May 8th at one of my favorite bookstores, The Strand, at a sold-out event packed by old and new friends. You can see my talk with the author and frequent host of The Moth, Tara Clancy, here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bQPjnOu4TM
Joanne Ramos on outsourcing the labor of pregnancy and the female body as manufacturing belt.
Picture this: an existence punctuated by yoga classes and country walks, sustained on a quinoa-heavy diet, swaddled in Merino wool. That’s the schedule of the women making possible this promise: the compromise of career or family resolved, without compromise. This is Golden Oaks, known as the Farm, a surrogacy facility that allows the global elite to outsource the labor of pregnancy to surrogates.
The setting of Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, The Farm, sounds like a thought experiment, but it’s better understood as a projection of the current inequalities. In a world of ubiquitous Louis Vuitton, the most conspicuous form of wealth, the truest status symbol, is the ability to buy back time. In Ramos’s novel, gestational surrogacy, a situation where a woman carries a baby that isn’t biologically related to her for compensation, is the ultimate luxury good. For those employed as surrogates, it’s a windfall. It’s a shot at the longest shot: the American dream. It’s also a sinister reversal of the idea of invisible labor—the labor of housework and childrearing that mostly exists below the drag net of economic measurements. That work here is given its due, a dollar value. But surrogacy as work turns its women into more than a labor force—the women become units of capital. It’s the body as manufacturing belt.
Dystopian fiction is a genre that other authors have used to shine a light on the treatment of women. The Handmaid’s Taleis perhaps the most famous example. Did you have previous books in mind that deal with similar topics as you wrote The Farm? And, in general, who are some of your literary influences?
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How much would you sacrifice to achieve the American Dream?
Interview and Review of The Farm and Q & A with Joanne Ramos
What could be better than living on sprawling beautiful property in the country, healthy food being served to you, fresh air and exercise, massages and pampering, and a generous, life changing paycheck, while all your needs are being met? The catch…you must stay on the premises and be separated from your family and friends for nine months while you are pregnant with a baby that doesn’t belong to you.
In this stunning debut novel, The Farm, female-centric and slightly dystopian (will be appealing to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale), author Joanne Ramos creates Golden Oaks, a secluded, country club atmosphere in Hudson Valley, NY where mostly foreign women are bearing children for elite clients who are not able to get pregnant or who choose not to.
Jane, a young, single Filipina mom with an infant, no husband and no secure place to live, decides to leave her own baby with her cousin, Ate, and take a job at Golden Oaks, where she will make enough money to better her life. She is chosen to be a Host, living in a luxury house in the middle of the countryside where her only job is to rest and keep the baby inside her healthy. Nine months is a long time to be separated from your family and as time goes on, Jane starts to question the value of that big paycheck versus her sacrifices associated with being away. She is worried about her young daughter and her cousin, and is unsure the money alone is an adequate tradeoff for the painful separation and the missing of milestones.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for a novel centered on a surrogacy farm and do you know anyone that ever worked at one?
A. When I finally dared to commit to writing a book, a childhood dream I’d deferred for decades, I was already forty. Certain ideas had obsessed me for much of my life but finding a way into them—finding the right story to contain them and, also, allow them room to breathe—was difficult. I spent well over a year writing short stories, flash-fiction pieces and “first chapters” of stillborn novels. It was an exercise in persistence and, also, faith. Then one day, when reading my husband’s Wall Street Journal, I happened upon a snippet of an article about a surrogacy facility in India. The what ifs began swirling in my mind almost immediately, and The Farm began to take shape.
Wednesday, September 18Ditmas Lit Reading SeriesMore details coming soon!
Sunday, September 22Brooklyn Book Festival1:00 PM“Pregnancy, Motherhood, and Autonomy”: A talk with Joanne Ramos, Ernesto Quiñonez, and Siobhan AdcockNorth Stage, Cadman Plaza East
Saturday, October 54:30 PMEmerging Voices, New PerspectivesHarrisburg Book Festival Harrisburg, PA
Thursday, October 10Bronxville Field Club Speaker Series40 Locust Ln, Bronxville, NY 10708More details coming soon!
Saturday, October 12Morristown Literary FestivalMorristown, New JerseyMore details coming soon!
Sunday, November 17- Saturday, November 23Miami Book FairMiami, FLMore details coming soon!
Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a B.A. from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she became a staff writer at The Economist. She currently serves on the board of The Moth. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
I was honored to receive an Agent of Change award in March 2019 from Girls Write Now, a fantastic organization that pairs underserved female students in New York City with mentors and helps them find their voices through the power of writing and community. 90% of the girls in the Girls Write Now program are people of color, 70% are immigrants or first generation, and 90% are high need.
In my keynote address, I spoke to these young women about how publishing The Farm has been a dream come true–but one long deferred due to the stories I told myself.
Joanne Ramos, author of THE FARM, at the Penguin Random House Open Book Event, December 2018.