by Terry Hong
She began her American life as a six-year-old immigrant from the Philippines. She entered adulthood with a Princeton pedigree which well-served her lofty finance career. She was a staff writer for the highly-regarded The Economist. She chose stay-at-home NYC motherhood with her third child. Those pivotal experiences reappear in Joanne Ramos’ bestselling debut, The Farm, set in an upstate New York surrogacy facility: “I think all fiction weaves in what is true—otherwise it wouldn’t resonate with readers,” she says.
In a simplified reduction of Ramos’ intriguing quartet of characters, struggling new mother Jane represents the immigrant experiences of some of Ramos’ domestic-worker friends; Jane’s older cousin Ate her extended family; liberally-indignant Reagan her peers at Princeton and in her life afterwards; powerfully in-control Mae her elite finance years. These four women’s lives intersect at Golden Oaks, a luxury destination two-and-a-half-hours north of Manhattan where diligently screened “Hosts” gestate other people’s children for (exorbitant) pay. Jane and Reagan are such Hosts—Jane because Ate encouraged, then enabled her by promising to care for her toddler daughter Amalia; Reagan because she’s designated “premium,” as in—white, educated, advantaged. Mae is the executive in charge, ensuring favorable outcomes for crème-de-la-crème clients. The inevitable clashes of race, ethics, class, and ambition drive Ramos’ scintillating debut.
Terry Hong: I understand you dropped out of a creative writing class at Princeton and then didn’t write again for 20 years …why?
Joanne Ramos: I didn’t major in English at Princeton. It never occurred to me to do so, even though I had loved writing since I was a child. I guess the idea that one could pay the rent and support oneself by making up stories didn’t seem possible or practical to me. Whatever the case, I didn’t even consider studying English at Princeton. I did try to get into one of the famed “writing workshops” there. They were taught by writers like Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates—writers I worshipped; writers, especially Toni Morrison, who made me a lover of words and literature in my teens. At Princeton, you had to apply to these workshops. I was finally accepted into one taught by the writer Russell Banks. I was nervous—I suppose because I’d never taken a workshop before, and because I’d never met a “real” writer before. What I didn’t know, but learned quickly, is that in workshops you don’t just submit your stories to the teacher, but to your peers. Your peers read and then critique your writing. Writing was something I did for myself—in my diary, on scraps of paper, in notebooks. I’d never shared my stories with others.
Add to this that I was still finding my feet at Princeton. Princeton was a completely new world for me—for many reasons. I was a financial-aid student there from the Midwest and, originally, from the Philippines. Princeton was my first exposure to truly great wealth, to class and all the unwritten codes of class, to entitlement. I was a sensitive young adult (I am now a sensitive adult!) and I noticed the gap between me and my peers—that they had read, seemingly, every book known to man; watched Italian “cinema” by directors I’d never heard of; skied on spring holidays; “summered”; had never held a summer job. Maybe other kids from my background were unphased by all of this. I wasn’t. And so, I suppose I entered the writing workshop already intimidated—not just by Russell Banks, but by my fellow students. When the time came for my critique, I was pretty much a basket case. I did not feel like I belonged at that table. I got through my critique and then dropped out of the class. And that was that for writing fiction for a very long time.
TH: What finally pushed you to make your after-40 bloomin’ debut?
JR: My answer is so cliché! The fall after I turned 40 was the fall my third and youngest child started junior kindergarten. I considered returning to The Economist, where I was a staff writer for many years—but the truth was, I didn’t want to write about finance and economics anymore. I wanted to write about all these ideas that had been swirling in my head for decades. So I started to consider writing fiction again—even though I hadn’t written fiction since Princeton.
At first, I was most daunted by finding a routine and the discipline to write regularly. I happened upon an article in a business magazine, something along the lines of: “how YOU can make a habit in XX days!” I don’t remember the exact number of XX. Maybe it was 37 days. Maybe 45. The key was that the number seemed manageable. So, I tried. I sat down at our kitchen table as soon as the kids were off to school and made myself write two hours every day for XX days. Lo and behold—writing daily became a habit. The discipline was no longer the difficult part. Now the challenge was finding something worthwhile to write about. I wrote daily for a year-and-a-half before the idea for The Farm really coalesced. That was the hardest part.
TH: Let’s backtrack a bit: since you were already a ‘published writer’ for The Economist, when were you finally ready to call yourself a novelist?
JR: I didn’t call myself a novelist until I sold the book. And it’s only really now, six months into my book tour, that I’ve become truly comfortable calling myself a writer. It’s funny: writing for The Economist wasn’t hard for me in the sense of identity, because I was writing at a great distance—about banks, banking, economics, the markets. And at The Economist you don’t have bylines, which suits my personality.
When I started trying to write a book, I only told my children and husband. I was learning by doing—I didn’t major in English or get an MFA. I didn’t know if the book would be any good, or if I’d finish it. I didn’t feel comfortable telling even friends that I was giving this—a childhood dream—a go. I suppose I was protecting myself. If I were to fail, I wanted to fail quietly. About four chapters into the book, I signed up for a writing workshop, mostly so I could have a community of writers who’d see me as a writer—but a community of writers who weren’t a part of my daily life! I chose a writing workshop in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, which is quite far from where I live. There, I started to feel like a writer. Over time, I began to share with some friends that I was writing. It took me a while to give myself permission to write and to take myself seriously as a writer.
TH: How did you choose surrogacy as your narrative crux?
JR: The ideas of The Farm are ones that have obsessed me for decades: about “meritocracy” and the narrative of the American Dream; inequality and how we fail to see each other across divides of money or gender or race; motherhood and the sacrifices many women make for their children. These ideas were rooted, I think, in how I’ve straddled worlds so often in my life. Straddling worlds can force you to understand both sides of a divide. It can make you feel you don’t quite fit in anywhere, but it also can give you a distance and perspective on things. So whether it was being one of the few Asians in my big public elementary school in Wisconsin, or a financial-aid kid at Princeton, or the first woman hired at the private-equity shop where I worked, or raising my kids in NYC and realizing the only Filipinas I knew at that time were domestic workers—all of these worlds, and feeling as if I had a foot in different worlds—gave me multiple perspectives, and raised a lot of questions that I wanted to explore in a book.
I circled around these questions for a long time. I wrote many pages of would-be first chapters of novels that just didn’t work. Finally, about a year-and-a-half into this process, I happened to read a short article in the newspaper about a surrogacy facility in India. I put the paper away but couldn’t stop thinking about this place where wealthy women hired Indian women to carry their babies. The ‘What-Ifs’ began percolating, and from there The Farm began to unspool.
TH: I’ve seen numerous comparisons/references to Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale when others describe your book. Was that classic on your radar when you started dreaming/devising/writing The Farm?
JR: I know, I know! The Farm has been called “The Handmaid’s Tale of 2019” by UK Marie Claire and a bunch of other readers/reviewers. I did read Atwood’s classic when I was in high school, and I loved it. In the sense that books you read in young adulthood can affect you your whole life without you knowing it—sure, Handmaid’s probably influenced The Farm. But I didn’t think the book I was writing was dystopian, and so Atwood wasn’t even on my radar screen. In fact, as I mentioned before, the “surrogacy” prism of the book, and Golden Oaks, only occurred to me after I’d been working on it for 18 months or so. I suppose one reason a surrogacy facility appealed to me as the central premise of the book is that it allowed me to take my ideas and broaden them. What I mean is this: my original story was a much more intimate one about one wealthy family and their Filipina baby nurse, who was herself a young mother, sacrificing time with her newborn daughter to raise someone else’s baby. Golden Oaks allowed me to widen my lens and explore not just this kind of intimate equality, but our entire system of “free” trade and commodification and inequality. One major difference between The Farm and Handmaid’s is that in The Farm, the surrogates choose to work at Golden Oaks. They choose this “freely”—and the question becomes how free is free trade when one party holds so much more power and agency than the other.
TH: As mentioned, The Farm took five years. From inception to publication, the sociopolitical climate has changed considerably. Has your own perception of your book changed in that time?
JR: It’s strange and horrifying how much more “timely” The Farm became. I started writing it almost seven years ago, now. Well before Trump was elected. Of course, the trends reflected in the book—xenophobia, widening inequality and the stagnancy of middle-class wages, the fight over women’s rights, helicopter parenting, commodification and hyper-capitalism—were already well underway six, seven years ago.
TH: Race, class, power, elitism—all those capital-i Issues are played out in The Farm, which could label you as a political writer. Are you? Is it possible to separate one’s politics from one’s fiction?
JR: I didn’t think of myself as a political writer when I started writing The Farm. But I’ve thought about this question a lot since the book’s publication, and especially as my book tour is winding down and I can see a (near) future when I can start writing again. But what to write? What is worth writing to me? I’ve always been interested in politics; I majored in politics with a heavy dose of economics classes in college. I’ve always been politically active. I saw The Farm as a continuation of a conversation I couldn’t stop having with myself—about how to be, and how we want to be, as a society.
I was invited to an event for The Paris Review by a friend last year. There was a writer there who spoke and said she feels the word “art” is bandied about too much, too lightly, and is used to describe entertainment. She said, and I paraphrase because my memory is terrible: entertainment asks—Do you like me? Do you like it? Do you like what I’ve done? And art tries its damnedest to tell the truth. I realized listening to her that, even though it makes me shy to type this: I’d like to aim for art. One of the reasons I did *not* change the ending of my book—and the advice I got from many, many people in the industry is that the reader would respond better to a happier ending, with the implication I’d sell more books—is I cared more about making the reader uncomfortable than happy, because I think discomfort makes you question and think. And happy makes you … happy. I recently re-found a quote by Toni Morrison: “all good art is political.” She said much more, and better than I could ever say, but I believe this. I don’t know if I’ve got the chops for it in a second book, but I’d like to try.
TH: ‘Writing art’ and ‘discomfort’ certainly answer part of this question … but maybe I’d like to ask it another way: How do you want to be perceived by your readers? How do you think you are perceived by your audiences?
JR: I think it depends on the audience. The Farm, I’ve come to realize, is a weird book. I’ve been told “it straddles literary and commercial markets”—so there is the straddling again! I have spoken on panels with other writers, usually female, who are more commercial writers, and I’d guess the audience there saw me more as a commercial writer (?). And I’ve spoken at panels, most recently in a round of Canadian literary festivals, where I’m onstage with writers who were longlisted for the Man Booker and the Pulitzer. I actually let myself get all tangled up internally by this “straddling” for a while (“Am I commercial? Am I literary? Do I try to write a commercial book next or a literary one?”)—until I realized I was letting the tail wag the dog. What matters is the work. What matters is I try to write something true, driven by a good yarn that gets people turning the pages. I suppose my dream scenario would be to be viewed as a writer with something to say, who writes about ideas but in a way that is accessible. I am not as interested at the moment—and maybe this changes—in writing books that only people like me and my friends will like. Of course, I hope these people will read my work! But I also hope I can get readers in Wisconsin and Florida or more rural areas to read The Farm, particularly as one of its messages is that we are all complex and irreducible and that we have to try harder to see each other, across the divides that separate us, more clearly.
TH: Since I originally (star-)reviewed the audio version of your book, I must ask: Did you have any say in choosing your reader, Fran de Leon? She was absolutely superb!
JR: I really wanted a Filipina to do the audio version. I was sent clips of four different actors. I connected the most with Fran. And I agree with you—she’s superb!
TH: And, of course, your eager readers MUST know—what might we expect next?
JR: I wish I knew! For the past five months, most writing I’ve done has been related to The Farm. I only started writing for myself again a few weeks ago, at the (wise) suggestion of the lovely writer Mona Awad, who told me the routine of writing would give me ballast. I’m currently writing a very dark, weird short story that for some reason needs to be written. And I’m starting to get obsessed with certain ideas. Hopefully, it won’t take another YEAR-AND-A-HALF to find the right story this time …!
Homepage photo credit: John Dolan.