The Farm: Women’s Wombs in a World of Extreme Capitalism

Community News & Features Jun 14, 2019 at 6:18 pm
Joanne Ramos answering questions during the Q&A

Joanne Ramos answering questions during the Q&A

By Michelle Chermaine Ramos
The Philippine Reporter

How much of yourself would you be willing to sacrifice for the “American Dream”? And the bigger question is, whose? When society is already allowing women to sell so much of themselves, where do we draw the line where it makes us feel uncomfortable?

Touted as The Handmaid’s Tale of 2019 in the UK and described as “the intimate inequality of the household” in a BBC interview, Joanne Ramos’ thought-provoking debut novel, The Farm, explores the commodification of women’s bodies in extreme capitalism.

Set in a luxury surrogacy retreat centre, it follows the lives of less privileged women who are paid large fees to carry the fetuses of ultra wealthy clients. There, they enjoy the pampering and luxurious amenities isolated from the outside world with their every move monitored for the duration of their pregnancies all for their sole purpose of delivering other people’s expensive babies.

The Penguin Random House publishing team: Sharon Gill, Maximillian Arambulo, Baby Miles Munday and Evan Munday.

The Penguin Random House publishing team: Sharon Gill, Maximillian Arambulo, Baby Miles Munday and Evan Munday.

On Wednesday May 29, 2019, Another Story Bookshop hosted a book signing session of The Farm with Fil-American author Joanne Ramos, moderated by award-winning filmmaker and activist Lisa Valencia-Svensson.

The Q&A session discussed the novel’s exploration of the division of women’s labour according to race and class, ethics in surrogacy as well as the dynamics of class and skin color with Filipinos as a result of colonialism and the overall promise of the American Dream.

“As I was reading the book I couldn’t help but think is this one big cultural critique and perhaps condemnation of the American dream and very specifically of the American dream as it was and is experienced by Filipinos, because Filipinos are the ones who have shouldered the burden of the American dream for over a hundred years now as the recipients of American colonial power?” Valencia-Svensson asked.

Melissa Grelo, Joanne Ramos & Michelle Chermaine Ramos

Melissa Grelo, Joanne Ramos & Michelle Chermaine Ramos

Ramos wrote the book to be about society today pushed forward a few inches to make a world different enough from our own so that the reader could suspend their belief letting go of their preconceptions and come out the other side feeling uncomfortable and asking themselves why. This is because everything in the book except for some pieces of technology Ramos made up actually exists such as commercial surrogacy facilities in some countries.

Melissa Grelo of CTV’s The Social was in the audience since The Farm is the next Social Chapter book which the hosts will be debating on the show. “The Farm is I think a book we’ve been waiting a long time for. When I say we, I say as a Filipino and as a Filipino Canadian,” says Grelo. “We’ve been waiting a long time for a book that crosses through into the mainstream in a way that brings so many experiences that Canadians of all stripes have somehow touched and I’m talking about with the Filipina caregiver, nanny, babysitter, baby nurse experience. This is the book I think that is going to enlighten a lot of people and hopefully arouse empathy as to the different struggles that all women in all positions in life are facing.”

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Photos: MC Ramos

Joanne Ramos and her family moved to Wisconsin when she was six in the late 1970s. She has been writing ever since her parents gave her a diary after her first communion and has always kept a journal through the years, the process of which incubated some of the ideas that eventually gave birth to The Farm.

Michelle Ramos: What’s it like looking back at your old writing?

Joanne Ramos: Oh, that’s so painful. I almost threw them away, but my husband wouldn’t let me and I’m thinking maybe at some point my kids…I don’t know. Growing up is hard. I wrote some of them from seventh and eight grade and those are difficult years so I don’t really look at them again. I think they all helped form the writer I am in the sense that I was always observing things and some of writing is the craft of it.

MR: Is there a book that changed your worldview or inspired you?

JR: Even when my parents would buy me board books like Cinderella, I would copy word for word the stories on paper and make pictures and staple them. So even before I was telling my own stories, I just loved stories and writing and books. I read a ton growing up like A Wrinkle in Time and Little Women where Jo, one of the characters, is a writer. My whole family were big readers so that just sort of seeped in. I loved Toni Morrison when I was in college. She really influenced me so it’s a whole history of books that led to this.

MR: How did you come up with the concept for The Farm?

Anjula Gogia of  Another Story Bookshop

Anjula Gogia of Another
Story Bookshop

JR: When I started writing the book, I was already 40 but the ideas in the book are ones that date back to childhood really. It’s sort of a stew of ideas I think that come from the fact that I straddled worlds so much in my life whether it’s being a Filipina in Wisconsin when my town wasn’t that diverse back then in the late 1970s and 80s. Really, Princeton did change my life and opened my eyes in a lot of ways because I had never encountered that kind of privilege or generational wealth until then. I was raised as many immigrant kids are to really believe in the meritocracy that if you work hard and you’re savvy you’re gonna make it, but you have to work hard and play by the rules. And then I got to Princeton where there are a lot of kids there who didn’t have to play by the rules because they were always going to be going to Princeton because they’re second, third generation or whatever the answer was. That was the first time I really began to question this whole idea of the American dream and meritocracy.

Then I went into banking where I was one of the few women there and I started raising my kids in New York, and in that orbit, only knew Filipinas who were nannies and domestic workers. It was that stew of ideas that is The Farm. The challenge was trying to find a story that can hold all those ideas. The surrogacy facility was spurred by a Wall Street Journal article I read a year and a half into writing a bunch of different attempts that didn’t work.

MR: Going through a traditional publishing house is a tough route to take. How did you do it?

JR: I have a number of friends who are writers and I know how it goes. I will say that the process from my book – and I think a lot of it is luck – that the book has really hit the zeitgeist, but it’s been very accelerated and a total dream. Like, I’m waiting for something to go majorly wrong because I know that this is so rare. So, when I sent it out to agents, I sent it out to four agents and within two days, I had my first offer and got representation right away. I know that’s not normal and I know it’s a mixture of the book…I think it’s a good book or a propulsive read. I also think it really hit a time when people want a story about immigration and female agency, inequality and all those things are so timely. So, I’m not kidding myself that it’s all me. I know it’s also timing and luck that this happened. And when we sold the book, that was in less than a week. We sent it out on a Friday and we had our first offer by Monday and we sold it by Wednesday. The whole process has been so crazy.

MR: Now that we’re talking about a potential film, do you have a dream cast?

Lisa Valencia-Svensson moderated the discussion

Lisa Valencia-Svensson moderated the discussion

JR: It’s funny I don’t watch a lot of TV and movies because I have three kids and a job, but I recently saw the movie Roma by Cuaron. It’s about a live-in nanny in Mexico who’s indigenous and she’s not a famous actress. He did an open casting and she sort of walked on. I was thinking for the roles of Jane and Ate it would be great to do something like that to have an open casting. They don’t have to be Filipinos but that would be pretty great just to try out and see. I thought for Mae Yu I’d put Maggie Q because her look is very much how I envisioned Mae Yu. For Reagan, because she’s Irish-American, Saoirse Ronan.

MR: If you could meet three writers from history, who would you choose and why?

JR: I think to talk politics I’d love to have Mark Twain and James Baldwin. I think they’re really smart and funny. I’ve always loved Virginia Woolf. I actually didn’t use to love Virginia Woolf in college but I’ve come to really love her. I think she’s really great. Or Emily Dickinson. I think she’s great although she’s still heavy, so I’d still need someone to lighten it up. I’m not sure yet who that would be.

MR: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Marisol Bobadilla from the Justice for Mushroom Workers campaign

Marisol Bobadilla from the Justice for Mushroom Workers campaign

JR: I mean it’s something I did not start earlier in part because it’s hard to make a living off it. But I think as a writer if you need to have another job to support yourself, you just make space for it. I think I read that Toni Morrison only wrote – because she’s a single mom with a job – half an hour or less a day but she was always thinking about her books and keeping space. So, if you can get yourself to keep writing even if it’s a little bit to keep your foot in, and then when you can dedicate your time to it…I think a lot of it is persistence. It was a year and a half of writing every day for three or four hours when my kids were at school before I came up with the idea for the surrogacy facility. And that year and a half, that was just persistence and faith because I was writing really bad stuff. I knew the ideas I wanted to write. I just couldn’t find a good story. That was just keeping at it and I think a lot of writing is a craft before it’s an art. You have to get good at it before you can write something great and it’s doing it. It’s stacking up those pages.

MR: What do you most want to be remembered for? Since you explored a lot of interesting ideas in The Farm, where do you see this going after this?

JR: One of my biggest hopes for the book and why I wrote it from four perspectives and why I tried to make each character complicated and not write a villain or a saint is that I hope people read it and maybe see people a little more clearly and without the immediate disdain or judgement the way that we do so often. That’s why I’ve been so encouraged here from readers from so many different places and readers were really different from me politically. When I hear from them on Instagram or whatever that they’re all reading it and living with these characters I created, is a real privilege I have to say. I hope that it helps all of us not be so judgemental a little bit. As far as the next work, I have a certain set of ideas that I’m thinking about a lot and I’m just hoping from there that I find the container for the stories like I did with the surrogacy.

Aileen Santiago, Gelaine Santiago and Allos Abis

Aileen Santiago, Gelaine Santiago and Allos Abis