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.
Bookish: Surrogates exist in today’s world, but your novel takes this idea a step further by placing them on a farm designed to keep them healthy and separate from the outside world. What inspired you to write about surrogacy in this way?
Joanne Ramos: When I started writing The Farm, I was forty years old and hadn’t written fiction since college—a hiatus of 20 years. But the ideas behind the book had been stewing in my mind for most of my adulthood. The difficulty was in finding a story that could bring these ideas—these obsessions, really—to life. I spent every weekday morning for well over a year trying to find my way in—scribbling stories, flash-fiction pieces, “first chapters” that went nowhere. Then one day, I happened to read a short article in the Wall Street Journal about a surrogacy facility in India. The what-ifs began pouring onto the page almost immediately, and The Farm began to take shape.
Bookish: There is an implicit criticism of capitalism in this book, which becomes explicit in a conversation between Reagan and Mae. Mae argues that both Hosts and Clients benefit from the arrangement at Golden Oaks. Reagan counters that the Hosts have few other options and that their limited resources make them vulnerable. Can you elaborate on the role of capitalism in this story?
JR: The Farm is a continuation of a conversation I’ve had with myself for decades. I was born in the Philippines, and my family moved to Wisconsin when I was six. I’ve been told many times in my life that I and my family are the embodiment of the “American Dream”—the product of hard work and smarts, and the fulfilment of this country’s promise. And yet, so much of any “success” I’ve had is due also to happenstance and luck: that my parents were educated; that my mom, a newcomer to America, had the tenacity to figure out the public-school system in our area and locate a school for gifted kids that was willing to bus me and my little sister all the way across town; that such a program even existed, and on and on. One of the foundational narratives of capitalism, the story that allows us as a society to accept the inequality that is a natural consequence of a competitive system, is that we start our lives on a relatively even playing field, and through merit, we can change our circumstances. Is this true? Is it less true today than it was before—and if so, why, and are we okay with this?
Bookish: You worked in investment banking and then began writing for The Economist. How did those early experiences inform this book?
JR: The Farm is a work of fiction, and the characters and situations in the book were made up in my head. That said, we are all influenced, consciously or not, by the water we swim in. My years working in finance changed my life. I met lifelong friends. I learned how banking and business and money and economic incentives work, which I think is integral to understanding how America—or, really, any country—works. I learned how to navigate a very male, very transaction-oriented environment as a woman. I met certain people who 100% believed in the idea of meritocracy and capitalism, an attitude that sometimes bordered on the social Darwinist—and I learned that, even then, these people were usually too complex to reduce to a flat stereotype. My years at The Economist furthered my education because I learned more broadly about markets—where they work, and where they fail—and that there is no simple solution to creating a productive and just economy.
Bookish: Do you see Mae (who runs Golden Oaks) as the villain in this novel, or do you think she is also a victim?
JR: I don’t see Mae Yu as a villain! I wasn’t interested in writing about villains or saints. I am more interested in exploring how different people balance the conflicting needs, desires, and loyalties in their lives; how they hold onto—or bend, or break—their values in the face of life’s often harsh realities. The reader reaction to Mae Yu that I’ve received so far reflects how complex she is. I’ve heard from people who absolutely despise her, those who grudgingly respect her, and those who love her.
In a lot of ways, Mae is the American Dream. She’s of mixed-race descent—her father emigrated to America from China as an adult—and grew up middle class. She’s worked hard all her life to get where she is—the only female Managing Director at Holloway Holdings, the luxury-goods conglomerate that owns the Farm. She tries to do right by the people in her immediate orbit: She supports her parents; she writes big checks to help her college roommate’s work in public-school education; she sees herself as a champion of her female underlings at the Farm.
And yet, she runs a company that commodifies women.
Mae is a believer in the story that capitalism is a “win-win”. In her eyes, the Farm is both 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. The question is what it is about Mae that makes her villainous, if that’s how you see her. Is it her worldview? That she works at the Farm? That she wields power at the Farm? Is she more contemptible than her boss, Leon, or some of the other women in The Farm who also betray others to advance their interests?
Bookish: In this book, the work of having, rearing, and caring for children is handled entirely by women. Why did you choose to make all of your main characters female?
JR: It’s funny. Excluding men from The Farm was not a conscious decision but a series of organic ones. The book began with Jane and Ate and my desire to explore the sacrifices mothers make for their children—particularly those who do so by taking care of other people’s (much more privileged) kids. It turns out that all the caregivers I’ve come to know well are women, and all of them are raising their children alone—the fathers have split. Of course, the Hosts would have to be women, and it made sense to me that the staff of the Farm, and the person running it, would be female, too. I think the Clients would demand that.
Bookish: In this book, mothers and children are separated. Wealthy mothers do not carry their own children through pregnancy, and they hire baby nurses and nannies to care for them once they’re born. Those surrogates, baby nurses, and nannies are separated from their own children by their work. To you, what is the significance of this separation?
JR: I remember talking to a woman once who’d just had her first baby. This was well before I was a mother. When interviewing candidates for a baby-nurse position for her child, she met a woman who had left her own children back home in the Philippines where they were being raised by their grandmother.
“What kind of mother leaves her children like that?” this woman asked me.
I was shocked. Perhaps because I know people who have made similar choices, and I know how hard they work and how difficult the decision was for them, it had never occurred to me—not once—to judge. Then again, we judge mothers all the time for their choices vis-à-vis their kids: the brouhaha when Marissa Mayer, then CEO of Yahoo, went back to work quickly after delivering twins; the disdain with which some working moms I know speak of stay-at-home ones. Being a mother is fraught, and it’s complicated.
Bookish: This book poses a lot of questions to the reader about class, race, inequality, and motherhood. What drew you to these themes?
JR: The ideas in The Farm are ones that have obsessed me for decades—ones that keep me up at night, the arguments I can’t stop having with myself. They’re rooted in my personal experiences and the people and stories I’ve come to know as a Filipina immigrant to Wisconsin, a financial-aid student at Princeton, a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance, and a mother of three in the era of helicopter parenting. In particular, during the years I was at home with my children, it occurred to me that the only Filipinas I knew day-to-day in New York were nannies, housekeepers, baby nurses. Some of these women became my friends. Hearing their stories—difficult stories filled with difficult decisions—reinforced a feeling I’d harbored for years: That what separated my path from theirs, a “successful” one from one deemed less so by society, was as much a function of happenstance as merit. It was from this accretion of ideas that I wrote The Farm.
Bookish: You were born in the Philippines before moving to the United States. This is also true of several characters in The Farm. What do you hope this book conveys about the immigrant experience?
JR: This country has given me and my family so much, and I feel American through and through. I have come to know many immigrants during my childhood and my decades living in New York. Some are educated, some are not. Some are fleeing terrible circumstances back home, and others are here for jobs. Some see themselves as American, others plan on returning home. There isn’t one immigrant experience. When writing the book, I was more concerned with how we see, or don’t see, people who are different from ourselves than with making a specific point about immigration.
Bookish: In the epilogue, Jane seems to feel that hers is a happy ending. Readers, I suspect, may disagree. How did you decide how this story would end?
JR: One thing I’ve found fascinating, and heartening, about the ending of the book is the starkly different reactions readers have of it. Some feel the ending is a happy one. Others have written to me that they find the ending “devastating.” Some applaud Jane’s choices, and others don’t think she had much of a choice at all. I can’t say whether Jane finds her ending a happy one or simply a pragmatic one, the best choice among not-great choices. I’d rather the reader decided that.
What is interesting to me—and what I hoped to allow for when I wrote the ending—is interrogating why readers feel the way they do. Do they feel things have changed by the end of the book? Do they believe in the possibility of change for people like Jane and Ate? I didn’t want to tie up the loose ends of the book with a bow. I respect my readers too much for that.
Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a BA from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she became a staff writer at The Economist. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.