Source : The Guardian
The author explains how The Farm, her novel about an upmarket surrogacy service, shows ‘where we are today, pushed forward a few inches’
After being sure that Donald Trump would never be president, then that his travel ban couldn’t last, or that Brett Kavanaugh would never be appointed to the supreme court, Joanne Ramos no longer trusts her own judgment. “In my heart I’m like, ‘There’s no fucking way this is going to happen,’ but it very well could,” she says. Alabama’s near-total ban on abortion has left her fearing the worst: “I still can’t fully believe it, to tell you the truth. The extremity of it is shocking. It’s everything – it’s rape or incest. I can’t believe that we’re here again.”
When the impossible keeps happening, it can feel disorienting and overwhelming: “It’s like, what is up and what is down? … It’s like you’re living in a world that’s been turned.”
The world is similarly off kilter in Ramos’s debut novel, The Farm, which imagines a luxury service that provides rich clients with surrogate mothers, confining the surrogates to a five-star country retreat during pregnancy.
“I thought of it as where we are today, but pushed forward just a few inches,” she says – just enough to make people feel a little uneasy, but close enough that readers would need to ask themselves how much of it is real. “I didn’t want it to feel like sci-fi, so people would say, ‘Oh, that would never happen.’ In fact, the one thing I hope people don’t say afterwards is, ‘That could never happen.’ I hope people are like, ‘Woah! Is this happening? Is it real?’ Because it’s where we are.” A novel that examines immigration, inequality and the control women have over their own bodies feels all too urgent, she adds. “It’s a statement of how extreme things have gotten that this book should feel timely.”
The Farm circles around questions of money, race and power with the story of a young Filipina, Jane, who signs up to become a surrogate mother. The fee for carrying the baby safely to term would be enough to change her life, taking her out of the dormitory in Queens where she lives with her six-month-old daughter and setting them up in their own apartment. But no children are allowed at Golden Oaks, so during her nine-month stay, Jane must leave her daughter in the care of an older friend, Evelyn.
Cocooned in an unfamiliar existence of quinoa salads, exercise classes and constant surveillance, Jane becomes steadily more uneasy about the child she has left behind, and more suspicious of the regime under which she is living. As her pregnancy progresses, an awkward friendship develops between Jane and her roommate Reagan, who is a “Premium Host” – a rarity among the predominantly African American and Filipina surrogates because she is pretty, white and a summa cum laude graduate. On the other side is Mae, a Chinese-American Harvard Business School graduate who runs Golden Oaks, making sure the wealthy clients are happy by keeping the hosts on the tightest of leashes. As a true believer in the value of free trade, Mae is convinced that the contract between her rich clients and the poor surrogates is good for both sides. But can the underprivileged women under her care ever make a choice that is truly free?
Ramos took no notice of the usual advice for first-time authors to write what they know, opting to follow a Meg Wolitzer suggestion: “Write what obsesses you.” But the parallels between her characters and her own life are uncanny – like Jane and Evelyn, Ramos was born in the Philippines, and like Mae, she studied at an Ivy League college. While she may embody the success her characters are chasing, the author is much more ambivalent about the American dream.
Born in 1973 in Manila, Ramos moved to Wisconsin when she was six years old. Her father, a cleaning supplies salesman, got a transfer to Racine. Every weekend after church they’d visit her dad’s family, who lived at the heart of Milwaukee’s small Filipino community. “That was very much where I got a sense of what it means to be part of a big, clamorous Filipino family because we were always together,” she says. “It was warm, loud, with a lot of questions, some of them nosey, and a lot of love.”
A promising student, Ramos was encouraged to apply for some of the US’s most prestigious colleges. It was only when she began studying political science at Princeton that Ramos began her education in wealth and privilege. “The rich kids in our town were the doctors’ kids – they got cars on their 16th birthday, that’s what I knew. But at Princeton I met people who had never had summer jobs and it was a given that they didn’t need to work.” At one of the first parties she went to, another student asked what her father did. “I thought I’d heard them wrong because no one had ever asked me that before. Because they don’t know my dad, so why would they give a shit what my dad did, right?” She laughs. “I said, ‘Well, he sells floor wax.’ And I say this jokingly, but it did make me feel very intimidated and pretty small.”
After graduating with a ton of debt, Ramos put her dreams of becoming a writer aside and went to work for Morgan Stanley, then a private equity firm. But she despaired of the well-worn track to Harvard Business School and pivoted towards journalism, eventually landing a job with the Economist. “For a while I did think maybe that was it,” she says. “It was writing. Unfortunately it was writing about finance and economics.”
After a difficult third pregnancy, Ramos became a stay-at-home parent. Instead of the office, Ramos spent her days at the park with her children or taking them on play dates. As she got to know the people looking after the other children she realised that many of them were nannies, and many of them were Filipinas. As a child in Wisconsin, she spent every Sunday surrounded by her Filipino relatives, but as a mother in New York, “the only Filipinas I knew were domestic workers”.
Ramos started writing short stories about the inequalities she saw around her, the gaps between the friends she made at Princeton and the friends she was making by the swings and slides. She dismisses these stories now with a wave of her hand as “bad, bad, bad”, but one day at breakfast she picked up her husband’s copy of the Wall Street Journal and saw an advert for a surrogacy service in India. “I’d never heard of them before,” she remembers, “and I didn’t do any more research. I didn’t even think it was a story idea, it’s just that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” The idea of a place where women go to carry other people’s babies is extreme, Ramos continues, “but it’s only an extension of what’s already happening. Women take care of other people’s kids all the time, leaving their own kids behind, sacrificing family for family.”
Gradually a novel started taking shape with chapters that switched between Jane, Evelyn, Reagan and Mae. “I didn’t know how else to do it,” Ramos explains, “because otherwise it was one person’s perspective and one view. I wanted to question the society we’ve collectively chosen, so I wanted to have people who believe in it, too.”
At the heart of surrogacy lie questions about choice and power, but Ramos says she has nothing against it. “I guess I would question how far we’ve pushed so many things into the realm of markets. I just wonder what that does to our relationships.” When value is conflated with price, as happens so often in our society, things get warped, she says: “Certain things which are unpaid, like motherhood, are not even seen until they’re outsourced. Does surrogacy make people value pregnancy more … or does it diminish it because it’s just another thing to buy?”
Ramos may not have the answers for our disoriented world, but since Trump’s election she has become more active in politics, teaming up with friends to support a local state legislator. “There are so many things that seem dire right now, so I just try to pick a battle or two where maybe me and my friends can make some difference.” She’s not yet sure how she’ll respond to events in Alabama, but staying on the sidelines is not an option. “I think people will remember this time, either way it goes. And what they should be asking of us is: ‘What did you do?’ And I would like to be able to hold up my head and say that at least I tried.”
• The Farm by Joanne Ramos is published by Bloomsbury.