The Farm (Bloomsbury, £12.99)
The Farm (Bloomsbury, £12.99)
Jane, a young immigrant from the Philippines, is given a chance for a better life when she’s offered a place at Golden Oaks, a facility in rural upstate New York where women are paid to be surrogates for the rich and powerful. Leaving behind her young child, Jane becomes a “host”, living in the remote luxury retreat where she and the baby she is carrying are cared for under the watchful eye of Mae Yu, an ambitious businesswoman. But Jane soon discovers that while the women who play by the rules get the best of everything, there’s a darker side to life at Golden Oaks. Philippines-born Joanne Ramos, a former investment banker, explores class, ambition and power in her compelling first novel.
What inspired you to write about commercialised surrogacy?
When I started writing The Farm, I was 40 years old and hadn’t written fiction since university – a hiatus of two decades. 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 to life. Then one day I 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: what if I made the surrogates mostly needy women who were immigrants? What if the clients were the richest of the rich? The construct of a surrogacy facility allowed me the room to explore all the issues I hoped to write about.
How did your own life experience inform this book?
The ideas in The Farm are ones that have obsessed me for decades. They’re rooted in the experiences, people and stories I’ve come to know, as a Filipina immigrant to Wisconsin in the late 1970s, a financial-aid student at Princeton University, a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance, and a mother with conflicted feelings about my generation’s zeal to give (or buy or otherwise ensure) our kids the “best of everything”.
Growing up in Wisconsin, I spent many weekends with my father’s family in a town about 25 minutes from ours. His parents were part of a very tight Filipino community in the area, and we were part of it too. Decades later, when I was raising my young children, it occurred to me that the only Filipinas I knew day to day in New York City were nannies, housekeepers and baby nurses. Some of these women became my friends. Hearing their stories – often difficult stories filled with difficult decisions – reinforced a feeling I’d harboured for years: that what separated my path from theirs, a “successful” one from one deemed less so by society, was as much a consequence of happenstance as merit. It was from this messy accretion of ideas that I wrote The Farm.
Tell us a bit about the different immigrant experiences that you explore in the book, particularly via the characters of Mae and Jane.
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, and I suppose I wanted to reflect that in the book.
The book started with Jane: a young mother who is compelled to leave her child to support her child, by taking care of someone else’s child. I added Mae to the mix because I wanted the perspective of someone who is a “winner” in an ostensibly meritocratic system. I actually didn’t think to juxtapose the two characters until I read this question! When writing the book, I was more concerned with what drives these two women and how much agency they had to truly own their lives.
Where does Mae’s ambition to succeed, no matter what the cost, come from?
Mae is an interesting character. I’ve heard from many readers who detest her, and many who love her. I certainly don’t see Mae as a villain, as some do. In fact, I wasn’t interested in writing about villains or saints in my book. I was 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 tough decisions.
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 she 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 cheques 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, Golden Oaks 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 or overly ambitious, if that’s how you see her. Is it her worldview? That she works at Golden Oaks? That she wields power at Golden Oaks? 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?
It’s sometimes suggested that the US is a classless society, but is it? How does class manifest itself in your book?
There is a scene in the book where one of the characters imagines that her life would have been more secure, even luxurious, if she’d been born in the US, “because in America you only have to know how to make money. Money buys everything else”. I think there is some truth to the idea that in America, money trumps class. In a country that lionises the individual and individual effort, let’s call it merit, then money, as a proxy for success, overrides everything else. In some ways this is a good thing: Mae isn’t upper class, but her hard work and savvy means she’s risen to the top anyway. In many other ways, it isn’t.
Motherhood is a key theme of the book. Tell us about your own mother and your own experience of motherhood, and how this informed the book.
Well, before I became a mother, I met a woman who’d just had her first baby. She was looking to hire a baby-nurse. She’d just interviewed a candidate who worked in childcare in New York and supported her own children back 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. It had never occurred to me to judge such a decision. 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, and vice versa. Being a mother is fraught and it’s complicated.
I am a mother of three. I understand the desire, a visceral one, to protect and love and help your child. I took that love as the basis, the driving force, for many of my characters. Almost all the characters in the Farm are mothers, surrogate mothers or women desperate to be mothers. What differentiates them is their socio-economic status, their privilege and what they do with it, not their love for their children.
What made you turn away from investment banking to writing fiction?
I’ve loved writing since I was a kid. I used to copy the storybooks my mom brought home for me onto pieces of paper, which I’d illustrate and bind together and call “my books”. I received my first diary when I had my first communion and I’ve kept one, off and on, ever since.
Life took me in another direction after college, driven in part by my college debt load, and because I wanted to learn “practical” skills and earn a steady pay cheque. This is what led me into finance. I learned a lot during those years, and they set my life on a different course.
Many years later, after a stint in journalism as a staff writer for the Economist and several years at home with my young children, I found myself itching to write a book. But it wasn’t until I turned 40 and my youngest was off to school, leaving me with entire mornings free, that I dared to try. My childhood dream of being an author was still a dream and time was passing. And so, I took the leap.
Is the American dream dead and buried? How can it be revived or kept alive?
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 programme 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” (sweat, savvy, effort), 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? Even if it works, is it fair? I wrote the book in large part to have this conversation with readers. To ask ourselves if this is the best we can do as a society.