Transcript for Episode 16, Joanne Ramos

Women are raising our voices.

Solving the problems of the world.

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[ Applause ]

Margaret Koval: Hello and welcome to She Roars, a podcast about change and the women who make it happen before, during, and after their time on the Princeton campus. My name is Margaret Koval, and my guest today is Joanne Ramos, Class of 1995. Joanne’s had a few incarnations since leaving Princeton. She began her professional life in the world of finance before tossing in the helicopters and the office masseuses to become a journalist. She wrote for The Economist magazine both in London and in New York. She had three children and then she turned to fiction.

Joanne has just released her first novel with Random House. It’s called “The Farm” and it is actually a terrific debut. Congratulations, Joanne, and thank you for coming in to be with us today.

Joanne Ramos: Thank you for having me.

Margaret Koval: I really enjoyed reading the book. I can’t overstate that. And I was kind of struck by some of the things that people been calling it. It’s called a chillingly plausible imagination of the future of pregnancy in one review or blurb, and another blurb, a refreshing advancement in feminist dystopian fiction. And another blurb, a page-turner about immigrants chasing what’s left of the American dream among a lot of other things, and I see all of that in the book. It’s a really rich book with lots of different themes, but sometimes it feels a little over-politicized, a little over-simplified, some of those blurbs, and I wonder if you could just help our listeners understand the plot of it by telling us what it’s all about.

Joanne Ramos: Imagine the most luxurious retreat you’ve ever seen. It’s on 260 private acres of rolling hills, pristine ponds. The renovated mansion is offered with every amenity and staffed by a cadre of fitness trainers, yoga instructors, gourmet chefs dedicated to the women staying there. But the thing is that all these amenities are not really for the benefit of these women but for what’s growing inside of them, because all of these women are surrogates carrying the babies of some of the richest people in the world and in exchange for releasing their wombs for these nine months, they have the chance to make big money.

And so, the farm is this retreat, and the story is about the women who are staying there. Many of them are immigrants. Many of them are desperate for money and to change their lives. Some of them are more privileged, college-educated. So you take this set of characters, Jane, who’s a young Filipina without many options, who is taking this job to give her daughter a better life.

Margaret Koval: And she’s probably the main character or at least I would say so.

Joanne Ramos: Yes. Yes.

Margaret Koval: Go ahead.

Joanne Ramos: She ends up having a roommate who is a Caucasian college-educated young woman who also decides for her own reasons to become a host at the farm.

Margaret Koval: And that’s Reagan.

Joanne Ramos: That’s right. That’s Reagan. Her aunt, or her cousin actually, is much older, Ate, which means big sister in Tagalog which is the language of the Philippines. She is a baby nurse who has been doing what she does for decades. Hasn’t seen her children in many years and is the one who tells Jane about the farm. And then there’s Mae Yu who’s a half-Caucasian, half-Chinese woman. The embodiment of the American dream in her own right —

Margaret Koval: Yes, very much so.

Joanne Ramos: — who runs the farm.

Margaret Koval: She’s a hard-driven career woman who wants to make a go of this, and in some ways, an antagonist, in some ways, protagonist. But certainly to my mind a really interesting character.

Joanne Ramos: She’s really controversial, and I’ve had a lot of reader feedback already and there are people who love her, and there are people who hate her, and I found her interesting because she is not the only person who betrays someone in the book, but she really is the lightning rod. The people who hate her hate her, and I find that interesting because she really is the American dream. She didn’t come from much. Everything she has she earned. She is good to the people in her orbit. She tries to help her assistant, an African American assistant, get into community college and thrive there. She helps her family. She helps her best friend from college. She does run a business commodifying women and manipulating them. One of the members of my team at Random House made a point that I thought was really interesting, which is Mae Yu tells herself a certain story to make herself okay with what she does at work. And I think probably all of us tell our own story to make ourselves okay with what is a very complicated and unjust world. We make a story to make our choices okay. And anyway, this woman on my team at Random House said maybe that’s why people hate her more than the other characters, because there’s a part of ourselves that also we have to tell ourselves stories to walk by the homeless guy on the street. Tell ourselves stories to leave our kids at home or not leave our kids at home and not working even though we’ve been raised to work. We all tell ourselves stories. I never thought about that but maybe that’s why. She is a lightning rod though.

Margaret Koval: She really is a lightning rod as you say, and it’s interesting because we allow ourselves, I think, to feel intense dislike or like around all these characters because the central theme is motherhood or a central theme driving through this whole — your whole novel is a story about motherhood from different cultures’ perspectives, from different characters’ perspectives of course, and different class perspectives. And we all feel, I was struck by this when I had my own children. Everybody feels they have the right to have an opinion about how you are a mother, how mothers do their job. And I’m wondering if that was part of your thinking as you sat down to write the book. Are you going to say, “I’m going to do a sociological exploration of motherhood from all these different angles,” or did it just fold out?

Joanne Ramos: Well, it’s funny. I always felt that I straddled worlds in ways. I was born in Manila but grew up in Wisconsin in a town where we were one of the few Asians there, and I was a financial aid kid at Princeton. I was a woman on Wall Street when there weren’t that many women on Wall Street. And then I was a high-achieving woman who decided to stay at home for a bit with her three kids in an era of helicopter parenting, and a couple of things around that period really struck me. One was this zeal to give our kids the best of everything. It can go to really crazy places when you have the means to go to crazy places. And the second thing is that when I was at home for a bit, I realized that the only Filipinas I knew in my life at that point on a day-to-day basis were housekeepers, nannies, baby nurses. And although I grew up in a town without that many Asian families, we would visit my dad’s family almost every weekend and they were part of a really tight Filipino community there. And so, that was very jarring to me, and it was those observations, this what I can give my kids that these women can’t. This real affinity I felt for them and this bond that we had and yet our paths were so different that stirred me to start to write fiction even though I hadn’t done it since college at that point.

Margaret Koval: That’s really interesting because I found myself wondering about this throughout the book because — before I met you it was obvious that you, the author, straddled these two worlds somewhat seamlessly. I know you’ve never been a baby nurse and you’ve never had the same experiences that Jane did, our main character, but how did you get to know the inside life of the immigrant Filipino, had a much more hard scrabble experience with America than you and your family did?

Joanne Ramos: Well, some of it is really rooted even my childhood because the Filipino community of which we are a part really did range, and some of it is from my time flashed forward to my 30s when I’m raising kids and I got to know many of these women from this orbit of parks and playdates that I was on.

Margaret Koval: Do you speak, I’m sorry –

Joanne Ramos: I don’t even speak Tagalog. It’s interesting. One, I’m very curious about people by nature and quite friendly, so I got to know these women and I really do think that many of them shared with me stories that they might not have shared with a non-Filipino boss. And so, I knew women who hadn’t seen their kids in decades. I knew women who lived in a dormitory renting beds by the half-day to save money, which is one of their earlier scenes in the book. Those exist and they don’t just exist here I’ve come to learn. Not through research but just through talking to friends who’ve lived in the Middle East or Hong Kong, but abroad especially, but there are these dormitories where sort of the imported help will stay, and that just got so many things going in my mind. One, what does it mean to leave your children an ocean away, live almost this half existence? You don’t even have a 24-hour bed to call your own and then taking care of other people’s kids. And to try to imagine my way into that was based on some stories I heard. Some of it was based on — I’m a mother. What would it feel like to do that?

Margaret Koval: So there’s a scene early in the book, and I have to say I was flipping through the book trying to decide whether I was going to commit as so many readers do and I got to this scene and I thought wow, she’s got me. I’m in. And I wondered if you’d read it for us?

Joanne Ramos: Yes. I’d love to.

Margaret Koval: I think I’ll give a little bit of background. Just to say, again, Jane is the main character. Jane is a very young and recent immigrant from the Philippines. She’s come to New York City, living in Queens in one of the dormitories that you’ve just described that her cousin, Ate, has helped her settle into I guess. Ate, the baby nurse, is ill. She asks Jane to fill in for her with a very wealthy couple. Jane is still lactating. She has her own baby at home but she agrees to do it. She goes to this very, very, very wealthy family. It sounds like the Upper East Side but I don’t know where you set it actually. And there she is doing her best to be the best baby nurse in the world, following all the instructions that her cousin has given her and yet things go tragically wrong in one scene. I should say the baby she’s caring for is called Henry. Chaos is erupting in the house. Jane desperately needs to pump. And so, take it away please, Joanne.

Joanne Ramos: Jane places Henry on her bed against the wall. As she goes to lock the door, he begins to squirm. She runs back to the bed piling pillows on his exposed side to buffer him. She turns on the white noise machine, peels off her shirt and attaches herself to Mrs. Carter’s pump. Within minutes, her milk begins to flow. Jane listens to the rhythmic suction and thinks of Amolia and relaxes. Suddenly, Henry shrieks. He shrieks so violently it is as if the air in the room is being ripped in two. He burps. Jane forgot to burp him before laying him down and shrieks again. Then again dissolving into a ferocious wailing. Jane, heart battering in her chest, quickly unlatches herself in the machine and sweeps Henry off the bed. His hands clawed her skin. “Shh, shh,” she whispers urgently pressing Henry against her chest and uses her free hand to detach the tubes from the bottles. Henry’s mouth closes on her nipple, which oozes milk. “No, Henry,” Jane tries to pull him off but he only clamps down harder gulping milk the way a drowning man, once saved, gulps the air. “Stubborn boy.” Jane slides her pinky into the side of Henry’s mouth and pries open his jaws. Henry bereft, tips back his head and bellows so fiercely his blotchy face goes white. “Henry!” Janes insides thunder. She pushes him against herself to muffle him and when he begins to suck on her again she lets him just until she can clear away the pump, which she should not be using. Just until she can dump the old milk from his bottle to the sink and rinse it and fill it with her fresh milk. Just until she can screw on the rubber nipple. She works as quickly as she can, her breast, the one free of Henry’s hungry mouth drips onto the floor. Jane is walking to the bed, a bottle finally in hand, when her door flies open. The doorknob bangs against the wall. “Jane, I just wanted to — oh my God.”

Margaret Koval: And there she is interrupted by actually a neighbor who sees her nursing the son of her employer. And to me, as I watch that, it’s so cinematographic, I wasn’t watching it but I was seeing it in my mind, it was almost like a horror movie. Every step of the way I thought oh no, Jane, oh no, Jane, you’re going to get in trouble. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. And sure enough, she does. It says so much to me about the themes of the book. Themes of immigration, themes of poverty, themes of class, and themes of motherhood, of course. I think you do a fabulous job describing Jane’s motherhood there, but I’m curious what it says about her boss’s sense of motherhood. Why is this such a horror? Why is it such a horror to have another woman nurse your child, I wonder? I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?

Joanne Ramos: Well, especially when there was a time when we had wet nurses or people had wet nurses and did it, I am fascinated, being someone who’s raised my children and has had help raising my children, about that relationship. It is one of the most intimate relationships in the world if you think about. If you’re hiring someone to help you raise your child, and I’ve heard many times from acquaintances or friends, “Oh you know, my nanny, she’s part of the family,” but she’s not. I mean, if you really — I’ve wondered that. If you ask the nanny, the caregiver, who would you count in your chosen family, they may not as frequently mention their boss as the times I have heard bosses mention their caregivers. And I just think that you layer onto that race, and you layer onto that the huge inequality we have in this country now where the idea of mobility and rising or at least giving your kids a better life, I hope it’s still true but I doubt it increasingly honestly. I just think it makes it such a rich place to write a story and that’s actually where I began trying to write this story for a year, year and a half, and it just wasn’t working. It wasn’t until I had the idea of a surrogacy facility that I was able to do everything I wanted to do, which is to layer in some ideas about capitalism or our society or what we’re willing to sell and that sort of thing, that it really came to life. But the genesis of the book was always that relationship.

Margaret Koval: Well, back to then the business model, the farm, which is the nexus around which everything turns. How did you get that idea? In a way, it’s a spit in the wind beyond where we today, isn’t it?

Joanne Ramos: I’m actually so happy you said that. I mean the book has been called in many reviews and in reader feedback a dystopia, and it’s not that, it’s not a dystopia. I suppose it depends on how you define that. I did not set out though to write dystopian fiction. I had hoped to write about the world that we are in now pushed forward a few inches, as you say, in hopes that in doing that people feel the distance to really immerse themselves in it, but maybe it’s close enough that you question a little bit about where we are now, the choices we’ve made. But the short answer to the idea is after a year and a half of writing in the dark, and again, when I started “The Farm,” or started trying to write a book, it had been since college. So over 20 years since I wrote fiction. So that was a year and a half of trial and error and figuring out how to write again. But I happened to read an article in The Wall Street Journal. A very small two, three-paragraph piece about a surrogacy facility in India, and I didn’t really do any research beyond that. It’s just the what if’s started. Like what if I made it luxury, because I’m really interested in this perfect parenting and this zeal to get your kid ahead as early as possible as much as possible, and what if I made the host or the surrogates not just Indian women because I was very interested in not just my culture but the other women I’ve gotten to know in the parks and playdates of Lower Manhattan. And just the idea of what we’re willing to sell as a society. I just think it’s fascinating generally and it’s aspirational edge to everything. I mean I’m old enough that I remember when you used to buy a shirt, you were buying a shirt. It wasn’t a shirt laid on a backdrop of a gorgeous apartment that made you want the whole life. I mean that’s relatively new. And so, it was all these things.

Margaret Koval: And the farm as you describe it, frankly almost takes, as you say, modern motherhood in some channels and just puts it in an institution because they’re obsessed with diet and they monitor everything that goes into the women’s mouths. They’re obsessed with exercise and every movement that they make through these little Fitbits basically. So frankly, I would be surprised if you didn’t see some businesses spring up in the aftermath of your book.

Joanne Ramos: Oh my gosh, I’ve heard that too. I’m like, uh oh, I hope not. I know even when I was pregnant with my first child, just, I was a new mother. It was quite overwhelming to me. Beyond — it wasn’t even the perfect parenting zeal. It was just wanting to be adequate and all of the media out there. Oh, but you must play Mozart for the baby and make sure you don’t ever eat any food that’s bad for the baby and don’t get strep. Even all that. That pressure. Even beyond the $1,500 strollers and everything else. It’s a lot and it’s kind of new. This real new focus on being the perfect mother. And so, in a sense too, I think the farm took some of those feelings I had and melded them to how I imagine some of the caregivers who witness their clients doing this but never did it for their own children, how they must feel. And again, that was another kind of thread that led me towards.

Margaret Koval: I think, it’s very interesting because you do have character development for all of your characters, and one is Jane hoping to give her daughter more and more. In fact, going back to the plot for a second, after we have the experience where Jane is caught nursing Henry, she’s fired and she’s desperate for a job. She wants to give her daughter a better life. She wants to get out of the dormitory. She wants an apartment, and she learns of this opportunity to be a surrogate at the farm, which comes with a catch and the catch is she has to leave her daughter outside the gates so to speak. So she’s doing it all for her daughter, which is fascinating, and then as she goes through her months at the farm she begins to wonder if she had gestated her own daughter as best as she could. So she comes along for the ride a little bit. But I don’t want to give away key plot points. I don’t want to do any spoilers. Complications ensue. She signs onto the farm. She becomes pregnant. She rooms with Reagan and some very interesting plot twists happen. They’re, again Raegan and Mae and Jane, all that they do is motivated one way or another by their maternal instincts, I think it’s fair to say. It made me think, again, you do it so beautifully. I felt it was one of the most multidimensional explorations of motherhood I’ve read maybe forever. I mean I really enjoyed that part of it.

Joanne Ramos: Thank you.

Margaret Koval: And wondered why is motherhood not on the literary A-list of novel themes because it isn’t. We don’t see too many novels simply about motherhood. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that or whether it’s changing maybe.

Joanne Ramos: You know, I think it, for a long time I think, and I’m not an expert in this, I just feel like it wasn’t thought of as literature, like the sort of thing that you’d write about to make real literature. Quite honestly I think it’s rooted in why when I was at home I really had — I think as someone raised to achieve a lot and who went to Princeton and expected a lot out of myself. When I made that decision to stay home, it was something that I downplayed. I thought when my real life starts again, in a sense. My real work at least starts again, but that was work. So even as an individual, I’m diminishing that or did diminish it and really noncognizant of the fact that I did and tried not to. And I think that probably happens when we as women write about it, and I hoped not to do that. Because it is so central — well definitely to the story but to my life and the idea that this is my first book and it really is a childhood dream long deferred, and it only happened to a large part because I’m a mother, is gratifying and has made me rethink how I felt during those years that I chose to be at home.

Margaret Koval: It is interesting because it is so, to me, parenthood to just expand it a little bit, is so essential to the human condition, and obviously it’s one of the — if not the driving force of life then it’s a mysterious absence in the literary canon in my mind. But I’ll leave that to Ph.D. students. Curiously, how did you — we often talk and think about writers alone writing in the experience you’ve sort of described a little bit, but then there’s the whole second part of being a novelist and that is promoting the book. Getting out and talking to people. How are you finding that experience? What is that like? I’m sure there are people listening who probably are interested in writing books.

Joanne Ramos: That’s funny. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I have not yet spoken about this part of it. I was really nervous about this part of things. In part because probably like most writers I feel like I express myself best in the written word. And I’ve been giving a lot of talks and doing a lot of interviews. I think the other thing is as a writer, I know that every story you tell shuts out other interpretations of the same experience. And so, in telling my story of how I came to write “The Farm,” it is true. All of it is true and yet I could have probably come up with a different narrative to say that. So I’m probably overthinking this in a very writerly way, but it is a funny thing because it is true. It’s also a little performative and I’m not yet sure how I feel about that, and does performance make something inauthentic? I don’t think it has to, but it’s different. What I have come to learn, because I’ve been doing a lot of this stuff in the past couple of months, is my fear that the book would become a static object. I’ve always thought of writing as a verb. Not the end result. It doesn’t mean it is a static object, because I’ve been having conversations like this where I’ve learned something I think every time so far. I’m new. Maybe that won’t always happen but the give and take with people. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” or, “I didn’t know about these dormitories.” And it’s still a live thing and that is really great. And like with everything, practice gets you places. I’m not so nervous to speak in public. I’m almost 46. I feel like not everything is new now in my life but with this process, with this journey, everything is new. I’m scared routinely. Every week I’m scared to do something for the first time. I have a privilege. I mean it’s totally terrifying but it’s also — it’s really great to stretch almost every week. It’s really — it’s pretty great.

Margaret Koval: I read somewhere that a work of art is in the artist’s head, the novelist’s head, the painter’s head, whatever. I guess the choreographer’s head. But it’s not really complete until it goes out and meets its audience and they make it into something different.

Joanne Ramos: That’s interesting. Yes.

Margaret Koval: That speaks to that a little bit.

Joanne Ramos: I wish I had known that before — I could have saved myself a few months of angst, but I found that to be really true.

Margaret Koval: I hear what you’re saying, but you’re underselling yourself in some sense in that you wrote that richness and that depth of potential interpretation into the book through the characters. They’re rich enough that I see them differently every time I go back and visit them.

Joanne Ramos: It makes me happy to hear because it really is — I really, really wanted to make all the characters complicated, especially Mae Yu quite honestly, but honestly even Ata. There was a — when people started to read it, I found people who wanted to sanctify her. That this whole idealization of poverty or the hard-working immigrant and she’s human too. And I’ve had some people say to me, “Well, I still don’t know what you were trying to say with Ata.” With the book because of the ending. And I say I’m really not trying to say — I’m trying to bring up — it’s a conversation I’ve had with myself for a long time. A lot of the things in the book and I’m just hoping to bring that to people, but I’m not trying to tell anyone anything. I just want to spur some debate maybe.

Margaret Koval: So I’m literally biting my tongue, because I don’t want to spoil the ending and can’t spoil the ending, but I should say I enjoyed the ending in particular because it took me in a direction I didn’t expect. There are no villains in this book, at least from my reading. I suppose some people read it differently. And everybody is in a sense a good mother and a bad mother. Everybody makes some mistakes. Everybody does their best. Their own definition of their best.

Joanne Ramos: And different tradeoffs, right?

Margaret Koval: Different tradeoffs.

Joanne Ramos: Some people will look at your tradeoff and consider it bad parenting.

Margaret Koval: And different cultures, of course again. Different classes look at all that differently. Anyway, we are running out of time so I should ask whether you’re gestating another book. I hope.

Joanne Ramos: I am. I am but nothing that’s ready yet.

Margaret Koval: Alrighty. Well when you do I hope we’re still running and we’ll have you back and talk again. Thanks Joanne very much for coming in to talk us. I really enjoyed it. Once again, the book is “The Farm,” published by Random House. Please do go buy it and give it a read. It’s well worth the time. Thank you to our producer Danielle Alio and to our audio engineer Kayce West. Thanks also to listeners. I hope you’ll come back again soon for another conversation with one of the change-making women from Princeton University.

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