“The Farm” Explores Surrogacy as a Luxury Commodity for the Global Elite
Joanne Ramos on outsourcing the labor of pregnancy and the female body as manufacturing belt
Picture this: an existence punctuated by yoga classes and country walks, sustained on a quinoa-heavy diet, swaddled in Merino wool. That’s the schedule of the women making possible this promise: the compromise of career or family resolved, without compromise. This is Golden Oaks, known as the Farm, a surrogacy facility that allows the global elite to outsource the labor of pregnancy to surrogates.
The setting of Joanne Ramos’s debut novel, The Farm, sounds like a thought experiment, but it’s better understood as a projection of the current inequalities. In a world of ubiquitous Louis Vuitton, the most conspicuous form of wealth, the truest status symbol, is the ability to buy back time. In Ramos’s novel, gestational surrogacy, a situation where a woman carries a baby that isn’t biologically related to her for compensation, is the ultimate luxury good. For those employed as surrogates, it’s a windfall. It’s a shot at the longest shot: the American dream. It’s also a sinister reversal of the idea of invisible labor—the labor of housework and childrearing that mostly exists below the drag net of economic measurements. That work here is given its due, a dollar value. But surrogacy as work turns its women into more than a labor force—the women become units of capital. It’s the body as manufacturing belt
Those coming to the novel expecting a burning-down of this new system will, however, be disappointed. Every party has a seat at this fire. The novel rotates between four characters, the capital-owning class represented by Mae Yu, an executive at the conglomerate behind the Farm. There’s also Ate, an immigrant and a long-time caregiver bent on forcing the American dream into existence. Reagan is a white, privileged, millennial with a still-calibrating moral compass who finds herself a surrogate on the Farm. Finally, Jane, an immigrant, a mother, and now also a surrogate.
At the same time that the novel pioneers a new business model for pregnancy, it consecrates a quality of traditional motherhood. The four characters, who exist across class strata, are unified by a single motivation: they want more for their kids.
I spoke with Joanne Ramos over the phone.
Mai Nardone: There’s an excellent, mimetic moment at the beginning of the novel where a wealthy mother starts filming her nannies, saying she’s working on a documentary project about them. The Farm throughout is very deliberate about documenting lives across the class spectrum. Can you talk about writing across that divide?
Joanne Ramos: That’s a subject I tackled in that episode, but also in another section when Mae Yu tells Reagan about a friend who started a program where they bring kids from the ghetto, basically, to somewhere in the Hamptons to see what they should aspire to. I do believe many people of privilege are well-meaning and want to help when they see injustice, or inequity. But it’s hard to know how to really make an impact, and it’s also delicate. Charity done without context or an understanding of the complexities of the “divide” can come across as awkward, patronizing, even bumbling.
MN: Beyond class divides, did you feel like you had to write into the current socio-political moment, especially in response to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration policies?
JR: The immigration debate wasn’t as heightened until Trump became president, but it’s always been one for me because I did immigrate here and I know people who are here legally and illegally. We came to the States when I was six. I was born in Manila. It was a typical immigrant story, you know: make it. I grew up, like many immigrants, straddling worlds. We moved to Wisconsin in the late 1970s, in the wake of auto factories closing. My sister and I were two of four Asian kids in our public elementary school and yet on the weekends we visited my dad’s family. They were part of a tight Filipino community. Then I went to Princeton. It was the first place I started to sense what class might mean, or entitlement, or really great privilege. Like many immigrants to the States my dad and mom believed in this idea of American meritocracy. All you had to do was play by the rules and work really hard. That’s how I was raised until I got to Princeton.
MN: With its yoga routines, wholesome food, and dorm dynamics, the Farm is half tech campus, half university campus. You’ve taken a character like Jane, a poor immigrant, and you’ve put her in an environment where she has the class shock that you’re describing from when you went to college. Why create this contrasting environment for the surrogates on the Farm?
JR: What I realized when I was raising my kids was that the only Filipinos I knew day-to-day in Manhattan were housekeepers and nannies and baby nurses. They would tell me about their kids still in Manila who they were supporting, and the dorms where they lived, renting beds by the half-day to save money. In my community if someone like you makes it then you’re proud of them. Like my mom knew Bruno Mars. She didn’t listen to that stuff [pop music], she liked opera, but she knew Bruno Mars because he’s Filipino. These women who became my friends, they’d say, “Oh you’re so smart. You’re the one. You made it.” Meaning: I am also Filipina, they were proud of me for ‘making it’—for going to Princeton, for having had good jobs and a nice family. I was like, “You guys work hard. You guys are smart.” It reinforces everything I felt since college that what separates a successful life in America from one deemed less successful is as much or more happenstance than any kind of merit.
Then I happened to pick up my husband’s Wall Street Journal and read this tiny article about a surrogacy facility. I started doing that “what if” thing. What if the clients weren’t just well off but they were the super-rich? Of course they’d want organic food, clean air, and everything pristine and wholesome. I’m of this generation of perfect parenting. Like this crazy college scandal here where rich people were buying their kids into college—that could have been in my book. There’s this zeal that can go crazy places when you have crazy wealth and privilege.
MN: The novel doesn’t open with the Farm, but with a portrait of New York City caregivers. You show how one privileged vision of motherhood exists at the expense of that type of motherhood for others mothers. You could call it the establishing idea behind the Farm. How did you decide to begin here?
JR: The first real thing I ever wrote was about Jane baby-nursing. She wasn’t Jane yet. She was a mother with a newborn at home who she left to be a baby nurse. Even that wasn’t taking me far enough until I read that article about surrogacy. It allowed me to broaden my lens. I could’ve written a very discrete story about Jane in a private home that still talks about race and class, but I wouldn’t be able to talk about whether the system works at all, or the corporate side of it, or how much we’re willing to let society sell. That was only available to me because the Farm suddenly became a part of a luxury goods conglomerate.
MN: For me it was notable that the novel was not representing a dystopia. Inevitably you’re going to get the comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but the way I read it, it was resisting that tradition. Is there a reason you have resisted the tropes and label of dystopian fiction?
JR: I didn’t ever mean it to be a dystopia. I meant it to be a snapshot of our world pushed forward a few inches, but not miles ahead. I was really interested in motherhood, and more broadly the sacrifice that parents or immigrants make for the next generation. Once the surrogacy part came in that broadened it to include all these questions about whether the system works anymore, whether what I was able to do, meaning work hard and change my life and my family’s life, whether that’s possible now, in a country where the middle-class income hasn’t grown at all since the ‘70s. I was less interested in making a futuristic, sci-fi thing that people may be able to dismiss. I was much more interested in pushing the world of The Farm far enough that there’s that suspense of disbelief and then after you think, “Huh, I didn’t like that world.” Hopefully the response can be, “But why?”
MN: Despite not being a dystopian book you invent a taxonomy for use on the Farm that sounds dystopian. Surrogates are “Hosts” and Golden Oaks, the surrogate facility, is “the Farm.” Why did you decide on these labels?
JR: It’s like a lot of business-speak and jargon. Here it’s less about specificity and short-hand but more about distancing from the world outside, the world of emotions and human relationships. It’s the way that we dehumanize people—I mean dehumanize is pretty strong, but you distance yourself and deaden it to make easier some decisions that would be harder if you saw people as people. As far as calling the coordinators “Coordinators,” I also think that for the Hosts it’s meant to imply that these women weren’t friends, they were handlers. Reagan knew one of them by name. But Jane never addressed any of them by name. I think that also speaks to the power differential between those characters. Agency is to some degree, maybe to a large degree, dependent on how privileged you are.
MN: Even the way Jane and Reagan see their clients is very different. For Jane it’s just a job. It’s about how it affects her pay. But Reagan feels proud when she’s told her client is a self-made billionaire with an exotic backstory.
JR: Jane’s equation is more difficult because she doesn’t have many good options. In some ways that makes it clearer. She is there to make the big money for her and [her daughter]. Of the four narrators Reagan was the hardest one to crack as far as motivation. She doesn’t need to be at the Farm. She’s educated, her dad has money, she’s privileged, she’s Caucasian. She needed another reason to want to be there. She’s someone seeking meaning, some reason for being where she is. She has more complicated reasons for wanting to be there than Jane.
MN: Because the chapters revolved through four different characters, it was hard to make an easy villain of anyone. I found it very nuanced. How did you arrive at this rotating structure?
JR: Jane and Ate were the ones who started me off. Their characters were this sediment, like this whole building up of observations and people’s stories. For instance, I have this one story in the book about one of the newer women in the dormitory in Queens being enslaved by her Filipino employers in New Jersey. Growing up I knew a Filipino family who were actually jailed because the housekeeper I had known growing up was never paid. These stories were always there if you knew or were connected to immigrants. Some of the women I met in New York had stories worse than Ate’s. I had to pare it back to make it seem realistic. Those two are the heart of the book in my mind because that’s what sucked me in. Then I realized that those two perspectives in a surrogacy facility allowed me to broaden the lens, like to the perspective of someone running it so I could talk about the system.
It goes back to debates about free trade I had with my dad growing up. He was the immigrant who came over here and fe
lt like, “I made it.” I needed my dad’s perspective, as a person who really believed in the system. That became Mae Yu. She allowed me to talk how it felt for me being a woman in a very male world when I was in finance. I had this throwaway line about how she’s the only female manager at Holloway. She’s a glass ceiling breaker. She’s very impressive in her own right. She also makes some very questionable decisions.
MN: Ate is probably my favorite character. She’s an older caregiver who sends money home, buys land at home, and supports the extended family at home. By immigrant standards, she’s a success story, but at the same time her life is quite sad because she remains, into old age, a cog in the American Dream machine, like she doesn’t know what else to do but keep turning.
JR: I think that Mae Yu and Ate, in very real ways, are similar. Both of them are not questioning the system but are trying to make it work for them, to master it. All of us compromise. We’re juggling different masters. I didn’t want any of my characters to be archetypes. Straddling worlds again, I know people who I consider my friends who have left their kids back home and work here very hard, some legally, some illegally. And I know people who have gobs and gobs of money and I’ve heard both of them demonized. To a fault I see different sides to everything.
The flipside is that you do have to come down on one side sometimes, and judge, and I’m not the best at that. I was less interested in having a “view” and getting on my soapbox to expound on my “take” on the world, and much more interested in the questions and the conversation that falls out of these questions. I met with one reader recently through a presentation. She ended up saying that what made her feel uncomfortable about the book was that a lot of this was already happening. Just to hear her say that was incredible. Was that my intent? I don’t know. I hoped to explore the questions that have consumed me for most of my adult life. I was trying to find the right, most salient questions to ask given where we are right now as a society. If some percentage of the readers feel that compulsion to want to talk about and figure out why we feel certain ways about these women and the world that we’re in, that we’ve chosen, then that’s it. That’s everything I wanted from the book.