If you haven’t read Joanne Ramos’ The Farm yet, you should.
Even though the novel is her debut work, it’s taking the literary world by storm. Verging on dystopian, The Farm imagines a world not too different from our own, where lower class, marginalized women sign away their wombs — and a year of their life — to serve the wealthy upper classes.
Cold Tea Collective had a chance to ask the Filipina-American writer about her book, and the life and ideas that inspired it.
The American Dream?
At first glance, Ramos’ life looks like an American “success story,” even before publishing The Farm.
As a Filipina-American immigrant who studied at Princeton, she eventually worked in the male-dominated field of high finance.
However, Ramos was skeptical of the idea that she was a Filipina immigrant who had “made it.”
After her third child was born and having taken time off from work to raise her children, Ramos was struck by the realization that the only Filipinas in her day-to-day orbit were domestic workers: the nannies, housekeepers, and cleaners who serviced the people she knew.
“They all worked tremendously hard,” Ramos said. “Some of them had left their own children back home in the Philippines and supported them from afar by raising other people’s kids in America.”
Their admiration for Ramos reinforced her skepticism of the story of meritocracy which she had been reared on, and which she first began to question seriously in college.
These ideas about motherhood, income inequality, the American Dream, “Otherness,” and hyper-capitalism consumed Ramos for much of her life. Even if she didn’t start writing The Farm until she was 40 years old, she knew she wanted to explore these ideas in a book.
The challenge was finding a story that would bring the ideas to life.
A Good Yarn
“I didn’t want to write a screed or clamber on a soapbox,” Ramos said. “I wanted to write a good yarn that would draw readers, maybe even unwittingly, into the dialogue I’d been having with myself for so long.”
For well over a year, Ramos hammered away at a book unsuccessfully. She came up with short stories that fell flat, and “first chapters” that went nowhere.
What did stay, however, was the story of a young Filipina single mother without many good choices in life who leaves her newborn daughter at home to take a baby-nurse position with a wealthy family. The story of Jane and her daughter Amalia remained at the heart of the story, which became The Farm.
One day, Ramos read a short piece in the Wall Street Journal about a surrogacy facility in India. That was when the “what ifs” started whirring.
“This was all I needed,” she said. “What if I moved the surrogacy facility to America? What if I made it a luxury one that catered to the richest people in the world? What if the surrogates were mostly poor, immigrant women desperate to improve their lives? And The Farm began to take shape.”
The Farm was the perfect place to explore the ideas that Ramos had been playing with for most of her life.
Other than Jane, the book also tells the story of Ate Evelyn, an older Filipina domestic worker who had learned through experience the way things work in America and was savvy and fierce, but for whom the American Dream had so far not materialized.
In contrast to both Jane and Ate Evelyn, Ramos offers Mae Yu, a half-Chinese woman who is the embodiment of the American Dream.
Mae wasn’t born rich, but she is what Ramos calls a “striver”: she worked hard to become the only female Managing Director at the luxury-goods conglomerate which owns the Farm. She is the primary breadwinner of her family, and she is incredibly generous to the people in her immediate orbit.
However, Mae also runs a business that manipulates and commodifies women, including Jane.
It is certainly a diversity of lived experiences, opinions, and characters. Through these women, the writer is able to draw readers into those difficult questions about inequality, motherhood, success, and the American Dream.
Perhaps more importantly to Ramos, however, she is also able to just tell “a good yarn.”
Being Asian American
Though at times the story seems alarmingly plausible, The Farm is a work of fiction.
“That said, we’re all influenced, consciously or not, by the water we swim in and the currents we swim with or against,” Ramos said. “Through some sort of unwitting, alchemical process, certain pieces of oneself and one’s experiences end up — altered — in fiction, too.”
Ramos’ family left Manila when she was two years old for Puerto Rico, and they emigrated to Wisconsin when Ramos was six, so her knowledge of the Philippines is largely from her family, through the values with which she was raised, the stories that she was told, and the traditions they upheld.
“I know what it’s like to be part of a big, clamorous Filipino family because we spent many weekends of my childhood with my dad’s extended family in a town about a 25-minute drive from ours,” she said.
Ramos also knew what it was like to be the only Asian kid in the classroom, but when asked about the other kinds of Asian American stories she would like to see being told, she admits she doesn’t really think in those terms.
“I like good stories,” she said. “I like good stories from different perspectives — and not just perspectives based on race. I deeply believe that fiction can open us up and help us see the world in a fresh and new way. I am lucky to be a writer in a time when the publishing industry is seeking stories from different types of people from different backgrounds with different worldviews, at least from my experience thus far.”
Cold Tea Collective featured Joanne Ramos in our top picks for authors to see at the Vancouver Writers Fest. From October 21 to 27, you can see Ramos at the International Showcase, Politics & Prose and American Women.
— With editorial contributions from Courtney Chu
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