The Farm is Joanna Ramos' debut work, a thrilling dystopian novel concerning fertility, class and human rights. With an urgent voice and page turning pace it draws you into a world all too close to our own. It is a study of the political state of today and offers a glance at an alternative future.
We've a short Q&A with the author and an extract from the book below.
Would you introduce your novel The Farm for us?
Imagine the most luxurious spa retreat you’ve ever seen. It’s got everything: gourmet chefs, private yoga instructors, expert masseuses. And, all of it’s for free. The catch? For the duration of their stay, the women at the spa are not allowed to leave the grounds, their every move is monitored, and they are completely cut off from the world outside—because these women are surrogates, and they’ve been hired to carry the babies of some of the richest people in the world. In exchange for leasing their wombs and agreeing to prioritize the life of the child inside of them, these women hope to earn big money upon the delivery of a healthy baby. But every trade comes with a cost, and sometimes, the cost is too steep.
Were there any specific events that inspired you to write it?
The ideas behind The Farm are ones that had consumed me for decades—ideas rooted in my experiences, and the people I’ve come to know, as a Filipina immigrant in Wisconsin, a financial-aid student at Princeton, a woman in the male-dominated world of high finance, and a mother of three in the era of hyper-involved, almost competitive, parenting.
One spur to writing the book was my realization, when raising my young children, that the only Filipinas I knew day-to-day in Manhattan were domestic workers—nannies, baby nurses, housekeepers. I got to know many of them, as well as caregivers from the Caribbean, South America and elsewhere, when I was at the park or playdates with my kids. Seeing the huge gulf separating their lives and mine, their children’s lives and prospects as compared with my children’s likely trajectory, reinforced a feeling I’d harbored for many years: that American “meritocracy” is hollow; that what determines success—mine or anyone’s—has as much to do with luck and happenstance as it does hard work and “merit”; and that the idea of meritocracy is used as a justification for glaring inequality.
It was out of this messy accumulation of ideas and observations that I wrote The Farm.
How close do you think we are as a society to the commodification of female bodies and reproduction in your book?
Surrogacy facilities exist. It was a short article in the Wall Street Journal about an Indian surrogacy facility that led me to imagine the The Farm. I didn’t research commercial surrogacy—I used the construct as a launching pad to create the world of Golden Oaks—but it exists already. In fact, almost everything in the book already exists, is already in practice. Whether this terrifies you or is a matter of indifference says a lot about whether you see this book as “dystopian” or not.
WHEN ATE ACCEPTED HER FIRST BABY-NURSE JOB MORE THAN TWENTY years ago, she had never worked with babies—at least, not the babies of other people. She showed up on the doorstep of the Prestons’ vine-covered brownstone in the rain. She held an umbrella in one hand, a bag in the other, and she wore a white nurse’s uniform. “Like a brown Mary Poppins,” Ate liked to joke, though Jane always thought it must have been intimidating, even for Ate—to be in a new country, her family so far away, starting a new life when she was already in her forties.
Ate had found the job through her friend Lita, who long ago returned home to the Philippines. Lita was then the Prestons’ house keeper. After work, when she and Ate and whoever was around the dorm were making dinner, she liked to tell stories about her bosses. The husband was okay, always working, but Mrs. Preston was strange. She liked her money, but she also despised it. She spoke witheringly about the “ladies-who-lunch” at her social club as if she was not one of them. She hosted black-tie parties in her bare feet. She took the subway to visit artist friends in Brooklyn and Queens but in the city she always used her driver, and before her baby was born, Lita heard her announce to her girlfriends that it was unnatural to outsource motherhood.
It took only two weeks for the baby, a boy, to convince her otherwise. He suffered from colic and cried night and day, inconsolable unless you held him in your arms and walked with him, up and down the townhouse stairs. When you stopped, even for a short while, he would begin to cry again. Finally, in desperation, Mrs. Preston begged Lita: “Find someone to help us.”
Lita immediately thought of Ate, who she knew needed the money. She told Mrs. Preston that her friend was a nurse and an expert with babies. This was truer than not. In Bulacan, Ate had worked in the church’s free clinic in the summers, and she had raised four children almost entirely on her own.
Because Ate had no expectations, she could be patient. She did not mind walking the baby up and down the stairs, sometimes for hours, kissing his mottled face as he raged and whispering ocean sounds to remind him of the comforts of the womb. She took him on long walks in Central Park even when it was drizzling and cold. In the stroller, with the earth bouncing beneath him, the baby grew calm. He sucked on his fingers and stared up at the moving sky. Back in the townhouse, when the afternoons wore thin, the baby would arch his back and begin wailing anew, and Mrs. Preston would become agitated. Then, Ate would send her upstairs to rest and begin the walking—up and down, up and down, the baby pressed to her chest.
Ate was hired to stay with the Prestons for three months, but Mrs. Preston extended Ate’s term once, then again, and still again until the baby was almost a year old. Mrs. Preston told everyone Ate was a savior and that she would never let her go. But when her friend Sarah bore a baby girl and also developed postnatal depression, Mrs. Preston asked Ate to help her. Ate worked with Sarah until her baby was ten weeks old. After that she moved into the penthouse of Sarah’s sister Caroline, who kept Ate for twelve weeks. Caroline passed Ate on to Caroline’s husband’s friend from college, Jonathan. This family recommended Ate to Jonathan’s colleague at the bank, the one whose wife was carrying twins, and so on. In this way, Ate became a baby nurse.
Because Ate had the Prestons’ baby sleeping through the night at eleven weeks, despite his colic and fussiness, and Sarah’s baby at ten, and then Caroline’s at nine, she became known for her sleep routine. This was the reason families fought each other to hire her, she told Jane. There were couples who called as soon as they found out they were expecting or even earlier, when they were still hoping to conceive. Ate would tell these parents that she did not book jobs until the fetus was twelve weeks along. “This is the only way to be fair to all the others,” she explained, although she admitted to Jane that this was not the real reason. The risk of miscarriage in the first trimester was too high; how could she schedule her work around wishful thinking with rents to pay and mouths to feed?
Ate also understood that for parents such as these, who had everything and more, being unavailable made her more desirable.
Ate began enforcing her sleep regimen when the baby was very small, just two or three weeks old. Without training, a baby of this age feeds often, every hour or so, and it constantly seeks comfort on the mother’s breast. If you hired Ate, though, she would stretch out the feedings right away, so that your baby fed every two, then three, then every four hours. By eight weeks or ten she would have your baby sleeping through the night, depending on the baby’s sex and weight and whether it was born prematurely or on time. For this the mothers with the arms like ropes and whipped-cream skin called Ate “the Baby Whisperer.” They did not know that Ate stood all night over the crib in the darkened nursery holding a pacifier to the baby’s lips. When the baby fussed, Ate lifted him to her drooping chest and rocked him until he was drowsy but not yet asleep. Then she would put him down again. Night after night, this way, until the baby was accustomed to eating only during the day and falling asleep by itself at night. After this, sleep training was easy.
Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a BA from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she wrote for the Economist as a staff writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children. This is her first novel.
© John Ramos