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.
As far as literary influences, some of the books I read while writing The Farm include Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary; Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy Home, Gilead and Lila; Lincoln in the Bardo and the short stories of George Saunders; Arthur Lubow’s biography of Diane Arbus; and the essays of Zadie Smith.
Jane Reyes and her older cousin, Evelyn Arroyo—referred to throughout the book as Ate, a Tagalog term for an older female relative—are beautifully drawn characters. Did you base them on people you know? Or are they more of a composite meant to embody the issues you wanted to address?
The Farm is a work of fiction, and the characters were made up in my head. That said, we are all influenced, consciously or not, by the water we swim in.
I was born in the Philippines, and my family moved to Wisconsin when I was 6. Many weekends of my childhood were spent with my dad’s family in Milwaukee, a city not too far from our town. His family, and we, were part of the tight Filipino community there. Decades later, when I was raising my children in Manhattan, I got to know a number of nannies and housekeepers and baby nurses during the hours I spent on playgrounds and playdates. Many of these women were Filipinas, and some of them became my friends. Ate and Jane, as well as Reagan and Mae, were inspired by memories, stories and observations from my childhood in Wisconsin, from my life in New York and from my own experiences as a mother and a daughter of immigrants.
At one point, Ate says that American children don’t take care of their elderly parents, unlike the good children in the Philippines. Have you found that to be true? More generally, can you speak to cultural differences between children in America and those in the Philippines?
I have returned to the Philippines only once since we emigrated, and that was when I was in my mid-20s for a short stay. So I am not equipped to speak about how the elderly are treated there, nor how Filipino children compare to American ones. That said, I have often heard family friends and relatives talk about how well cared for the elderly are in the Philippines, how they are not stuffed into nursing homes but grow old at home with family. Often, this was attributed to cultural reasons—a purported greater respect for family and the elderly in the Philippines compared with America—but I’d guess the availability of affordable caregivers is also an important factor.
Another theme that emerges throughout the book is the desire many people have to gain an edge over others, whether it’s the mothers who want an advantage for their babies by coming to the Farm, or people like Mae, Golden Oaks’ director, who covet power and appear to prize status over other considerations. Was this one of the themes that inspired the book? And what did you hope to say about it?
The Farm is in part a response to our tendency to see through, or even vilify, people who are different from ourselves. I had no interest in populating the book with villains or saints. I tried hard to create characters that reflect the complexity of real people. Real people have myriad, and often conflicting, needs, desires and loyalties. We try to balance them; often we fail; sometimes we betray each other.
Along the same lines, I’m interested in your thoughts about consumerism and America’s—and perhaps the Philippines’—relationship to wealth. Mae clearly likes the finest in life, from cashmere clothing to mother-of-pearl tissue dispensers. She says that most people accept 1 percenters that they can relate to, like Oprah or movie stars. Do you think that’s true? And is that true as much in the Philippines as in America?
Mae Yu, who runs the Farm, is a really polarizing character. I’ve heard from readers who detest her and others who love or admire her. The funny thing is that she’s not the only character in the book who betrays people, but she’s the lightning rod for a lot of criticism.
In many ways, Mae is the embodiment of the American dream. Her dad is an immigrant from China; her mother is Caucasian. She grew up middle class and worked hard to get where she is: the only female Managing Director at the luxury-goods conglomerate that owns the Farm, the primary breadwinner of her family.
Mae is good to the people in her immediate orbit. She helps her assistant, a young African American woman who was once a Host at the Farm, succeed in college; she is generous to her best friend, a public-school teacher in Los Angeles on a limited salary. And yet, she runs a business that manipulates and commodifies women. The story of free trade, of capitalism as a “win-win,” is important to Mae because it justifies her life. And so, to her, the Farm is a “win-win,” too—good for the Clients, who get to become parents, and good for the Hosts, who can earn the kind of money that will change their lives. It’s unsurprising, then, that she thinks the 1 percent deserve to be at the top of the heap.
Surrogacy is very much in the news, with gay couples and single parents (and many others) turning to surrogates to help start their families. Your novel paints a relatively dark portrait of a world in which women feel the need to resort to surrogacy to survive financially or break free from families. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your feelings toward surrogacy.
The book is definitively not a statement or judgment on surrogacy! In fact, I have a number of friends—both gay friends and those who have had difficulties carrying a pregnancy to term—who have used or are contemplating the use of surrogates. The construct of a luxury surrogacy retreat gave me a way into the ideas that I wanted to explore—more intimate questions about motherhood and broader questions about fairness and capitalism.
What messages about the plight of immigrants, specifically women, do you hope readers will take away from your book?
The Farm is a continuation of a conversation I’ve conducted with myself for most of my adult life—about the blurry line between luck and merit, inequality, motherhood, feminism and how we see those who are different from ourselves.
What are you working on next?
I have a notebook where I jot ideas, observations, bits from the books I’m reading. Slowly, these scribbles are starting to cohere. But it’s too early to talk about book two. I’m hoping to surprise myself, and my readers, too.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Farm.
Author photo by John Dolan