Race, gender and class – Joanne Ramos’ The Farm

The Farm is an insightful and beautifully crafted novel that explores surrogacy, the intersection of wealth and privilege and the intimate lives of migrant women in America. It is eerily insightful into a not-so-distant future where the exploitation of women’s bodies will become even more normalised.

Feminartsy Editor-in-Chief, Zoya Patel, will be speaking to Joanne Ramos in-conversation at Harry Hartog ANU on 3 September 2019. Ahead of this event, we caught up with Joanne to chat about her inspiration for The Farm.

Where did the inspiration for The Farm come from?

I’ve been a compulsive scribbler—stories, diary entries, essays—since I was a young child, but I didn’t start writing The Farm until I was forty.  The ideas behind the book, though, have consumed me for most of my life—ones rooted in how it felt to constantly straddle worlds: as a Filipina immigrant to Wisconsin in the late 1970s; as a financial-aid student at Princeton, one of the wealthiest universities in the world; as a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance; and as a mother with conflicted feelings about my generation’s obsession with giving our kids the best of everything.

I was struck by the realization when I was raising my young children in Manhattan that the only Filipinas in my day-to-day orbit were domestic workers—the nannies, housekeepers and cleaners that serviced the people I knew. Their admiration for me—that I was a Filipina immigrant who had “made it”, that I was an American “success story”—reinforced my skepticism of the idea of meritocracy on which I’d been reared and which I’d first begun to question in seriousness in college. I see The Farm as a continuation of this questioning.

How did you decide which characters to provide a narrative perspective from, and which to keep as secondary?

Before I struck upon the idea of setting The Farm in a luxury surrogacy facility, the story was a smaller one. It revolved around a young Filipina woman who felt compelled to leave her newborn daughter at home to take a baby-nurse position with a wealthy family. So, the book really started with Jane and Amalia. I already had the notion I wanted the perspective of an older Filipina domestic worker—someone who knew the ropes and was savvy and hard-working, but for whom the American Dream had so far not materialized—and that became Ate Evelyn.  

The idea of a baby farm came from a short article I happened to read in the newspaper about a surrogacy facility in India. The what ifs began bubbling in my head almost immediately: what if I made the facility a luxury one; what if its clients were billionaires and the surrogates were mostly poor, immigrant women. What excited me about this construct is that it allowed me to widen my lens and explore not just the intimate inequality in one affluent family’s home, but our society and economic system. Once I committed to this wider lens, I knew I wanted to have the perspective of a beneficiary of, and believer in, the status quo—and that became Mae Yu. Reagan, and her perspective as someone who sincerely wants to do right but who has a blinkered view of the world because of her privilege, came last.

Have you had any unexpected responses to the book to date?

The first person in line at a book signing I did in Washington, D.C. told me that I had the “mind of a technologist”. This was news to me, because I’m something of a Luddite. She proceeded to tell me that she’s part of a group of technologists who gather together to read dystopian and science fiction to get ideas for new products. She told me she’d “gotten a lot of ideas” for marketable tech from my book. Before I could respond, she clasped her signed copy of The Farm and wafted away! I was left feeling uneasy. The last thing I meant to do when writing The Farm was to help spawn business ideas.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading several books, as is my wont. I’m almost finished with Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which I picked up because I loved her second book,Circe. I’m about a quarter of the way through Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, not exactly a light summer read but a worthy one. I am also reading The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. I like to read a mix of fiction, non-fiction and memoir at any given time.

You can catch Joanne Ramos in-conversation with author & Feminartsy editor-in-chief Zoya Patel at Harry Hartog ANU, Tuesday 3 September 2019. Register for free here.

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