The premise for Joanne Ramos’s debut novel The Farm sounds like it is ripped straight out of dystopian fiction. A megacorporation that sets up a surrogacy service for the ultra-rich, taking mainly poor women and immigrants and putting them in a facility for the duration of their pregnancy. But Ramos does not go down the dystopian route. She has more interesting concerns than the end of society and is much more interested in using what is only just a thought experiment to explore the disparity between rich and poor in America.
Jane is a Filipino living in dorm accommodation in New York with her baby Amalia, her cousin Evelyn (Ate) and a number of other women. She scrapes by working at an old age home but when a better job as a nanny comes to an unexpected end Jane is left without a job. Enter Golden Acres, a new facility set up by Mae Wu, an executive of a megacorporation which provides surrogates for the ultra wealthy. Jane agrees to sign up, leaving her daughter in the care of her cousin with the promise of regular income and a “delivery bonus”. On entering the facility she meets Reagan, a fairly rich young white woman who has signed up to try and achieve some financial independence from her family, and her wild friend Lisa.
While there is some element of control at Golden Acres, known by its inmates as The Farm, Ramos does not present it as a dystopian nightmare. The women who are there have come by choice, although that choice is informed by their desire to earn enough to live well in America. Mae, who runs the facility, does care for her charges but in an economic way, always putting the profitability of her centre above any personal desires of the women in it.
Ramos uses her scenario to explore the gap between rich and poor in the US and the struggle of immigrants to make a living and support the families they have left behind. She does not shy away from the way the Filipino women are treated both as hired help and as surrogates. In both cases, they are seen as lesser in some way, as grasping and potentially shifty. No one is spared, with one episode having Ate being treated that way by a wealthy Filipino family that she has been catering for. This disparity carries through the book, with Ramos making a point through the different treatment of Reagan and Jane by the company.
The surrogacy service itself is only a slight extrapolation of the ability of the wealthy to buy anything. While some are seeking surrogacy due to an inability to carry a baby to term, in many cases, the people seeking surrogacy are doing so to avoid the hassle and expense of pregnancy and are happy to use those who have little choice to provide this service.
The Farm as a concept comes across as a Handmaid’s Tale– style dystopia and while pessimists might see this as a stepping stone to a more restrictive future Ramos herself never goes there. She is much more interested in the value of reproductive rights and the entitlement of the rich to purchase those services. In that respect, The Farm is still a cautionary tale, but one with plenty of heart and compassion even while everyone is held in their place.