The Luxury of Choice: Talking with Joanne Ramos

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Joanne Ramos and I first met in a Ditmas writing workshop led by Rachel Sherman six years ago. There, Ramos shared the initial chapters of a novel, and her enormous talent clobbered me. The chapters introduced a Big Brother surrogacy farm, her vibrant characters, explored power dynamics, and beautifully rendered stories of Filipina caregivers. There’s one scene set in a swank Manhattan apartment (I won’t spoil it) that still has me holding my breath. After class, we became friends, swapping pages and commiserations as she tunneled deeper into the textured unfolding and unsettling landscape of The Farm.

Ramos worked in investment banking and private equity for many years, eventually transitioning into a staff writer role with The Economist. The path to publication for The Farm, Ramos’s first novel, has been a whirlwind fairytale, the kind writers dream about.

In February, I caught up with Ramos at her favorite coffee shop in Tribeca to talk about writing The Farm, her writing process, and pre-publication jitters.

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The Rumpus: In some ways, the work you were doing in private equity and as a journalist seem light years away from literature. And yet, your economic expertise anchors this book in authenticity. How does one go from finance to fiction?

Joanne Ramos: I was forty when I started writing fiction seriously. I hadn’t written since college, but I had ideas percolating. I’d always wanted to find a way to write about class, inequality, and otherness because of my life experiences.

My family moved from the Philippines to Wisconsin when I was six. At the public elementary school that my little sister and I attended, there were four Asians. The other two were brothers, and everyone thought we were one family even though they were Korean. Looking back, I can say there wasn’t much representation, but at the time, I just felt very different.

On weekends we’d visit my dad’s family and have this clamorous time after church, eating Filipino food with my aunties and uncles and cousins so I grew up very Filipino in that sense. The dual world of being part of things but not really part of things is how I’ve felt most of my life.

Princeton was the first place I really understood class and privilege. At the time I didn’t have words for it, or know the rules of that game. When I went into banking and private equity I took those jobs not because I love finance but because I had a ton of debt. As an immigrant, you’re just practical. It never occurred to me that it was possible to make a living writing.

In finance and in private equity, we had in-house massages, we took private jets. Suddenly, I fit into this new world; I knew how to speak the language and was having a whole different life from how I grew up. And all the while, I wanted to write.

Rumpus: The premise of The Farm is eerily brilliant: the Canyon Ranch of surrogacy farms, where women in financial need are paid to carry elite babies to term, all within spitting distance of NYC. As someone painfully rooted in realism, I’m curious about writers with actual imaginations. How did this idea come about and at what point did you know you had to write it?

Ramos: I’d been home with my kids. It occurred to me around that time that the only Filipinas I knew were my nanny, and the nannies of my friends or their housekeeper. It was a weird feeling.

Maybe it’s the same in all non-Western cultures, but in the Filipina culture, when there’s a successful Filipina, the whole community is proud of you. So many Filipina nannies and housekeepers were proud of me because I’d made it, I was some embodiment of the American dream—and it just wasn’t true! To prioritize one story over the other, where there was so much luck and happenstance involved, but there is this archaic narrative they believed in.

All that “If you believe, you can achieve!” stuff on Instagram bothers me. Putting the onus of success on the individual where in reality there are a lot of reasons why someone can’t lean in or hustle. Things worked out so I was able to benefit from the system. Success comes with that level of access.

One day I read in my husband’s Wall Street Journal a tiny article about a surrogacy facility in India where Westerners were hiring people to carry their babies. From there, I began thinking: What if

What if I made it luxury? What if the surrogates were not Indian but Filipina and Caribbean women? So the story came out of that article, but I’d been trying to find a way into these ideas for a year and a half. I started writing the book before the election. But I pushed for a 2019 pub date. I didn’t want to wait until 2020.

Rumpus: While clearly political, your novel never feels didactic. The restraint strikes me as a generosity, allowing your reader to enter the story through its characters: to feel without being told how to feel. Why was that tonal positioning so important to you?

Ramos: I remember one thing Rachel Sherman said, “You don’t want to feel disdain for your characters,” and that really stuck with me.

I really wanted each character to be complex because it’s too easy—especially now—to paint flat, obvious one-dimensional creatures. In workshop, many people assumed Mae Yu was the villain. She likes her designer clothes, she wants a nice life, she’s a little selfish. I happen to know people like that. They are not bad. They can be good mothers or fathers or sisters, but they don’t think about those with less, and they don’t think about politics in the way I do.

What I was hoping to do was make everyone round. With Ate, early readers saw her as saintly, which is why I changed some things, because when your life is that hard you have to make tradeoffs that aren’t always perfect. I don’t think it’s ever that easy. We are all guilty and innocent of a lot. The world has become a polarized place, but I’m always on a mission to notice. That word “disdain” really helped to soften the edges of some of my less forgiving characters.

Rumpus: You provide a kaleidoscopic window onto the farm through the characters of Mae Yu, Reagan, Ate, and Jane. How did you arrive at this structure?

Ramos: Most of the time I just started doing. I don’t outline. During that year and a half writing bad stories (which I never published), I got out of my system all of the beating the drum with my liberal take of what I believe. One thing I did try was flash fiction, and the scene of Jane with the baby she is taking care of, when she winds up nursing her charge, that was originally an eight-hundred-word flash fiction.

Rumpus: It’s an unforgettable scene!

Ramos: I’ve had nannies, and I wanted to write that perspective. What is it like to love your child and to take care of somebody else?

So I knew Jane was always going to be there. Ate reminded me of someone I’d gotten to know, a no-nonsense, older baby nurse whose story if I put into fiction wouldn’t even seem real it was so horrible. It would seem too dramatic. Her chapters came easily. Some people said she slows down the story, but I love her. She reminds me of the sacrifices people make.

Mae Yu came about because I wanted someone who worked at the farm, and I wanted her to be a woman. I wanted to talk about power and inequality, to show that sometimes those who seem like rich, unfeeling fat cats—not to excuse them—may not be aware. They could become more compassionate.

I also wanted to call into question free trade and how the transactional nature of capitalism, tentative as it is, works for both parties. But what does it actually mean if the other party doesn’t have a lot of choice? And what does it mean to be good and charitable if you’re getting something out of it? Do you have to be totally selfless in order to be doing something good?

And with the character Reagan, I wanted to talk about privilege.

Rumpus: With Jane, you do a wonderful job of providing visibility to a story we often don’t see. Her hands are tied by many factors (poverty, domestic violence, young motherhood); her relationship with Ate is familial but not uncomplicated. At the farm, we are rooting for her to break free. The word agency gets bandied about a lot in literature, but agency is often tied to privilege. Jane is without.

Ramos: I know people like her. The world has acted upon her and the system has worked on her in such a way that she also doesn’t feel like she deserves it. If I said, speak up to your boss, she’d say, How can I? I didn’t finish high school.

There were editors who wanted the ending to be more hopeful. The narrative of Hollywood would support that, but that’s not reality.

Some people have said, “I hated the ending, but I realize it’s probably realistic.” That’s what I wanted. Of course, you want her life to change, and it changes a bit, yes, but not all that much. You may not like it. I’ve met a number of women who’ve said, I can’t believe these women leave their kids far away at home. And for me, being from that culture, how can they not understand? Do you really think they’d want to? I’m always surprised that people don’t get that; they think it’s a fully realized choice.

Rumpus: Golden Oaks is a dystopian utopia: a false haven of (closely monitored) organic meals and yoga, but all wombs are not equal. It’s an incubator for the racial, economic, and social disparity of the outside world. The system—while run by Mae Yu—is controlled by Leon, a specter figure I’m assuming is The White Male. That power structure is never challenged.

Ramos: In finance, it was a very male-dominated world. I was always thinking: should I take up more space? Mae Yu is a feminist, or so she says, though she runs this farm. She tries to help other female players on her team, but she is still part of a world where the rules are not written by her. When I thought about a big conglomerate, I just started writing a male. In private equity I was the first woman they’d ever hired. I was constantly conscious of how I looked and dressed. You don’t want to look like you’re playing off your sexuality. Women have to think so much about their perception in a way that men don’t.

Maybe it never even occurred to me to make a woman in charge. When I could see the farm, I saw the guy who says “give me a hard on.” I know those guys. That’s the world.

Rumpus: A jaded three-time host says, “Everything is up for sale.” Is there a price for freedom? For whom?

Ramos: I remember back in college, there was an ad in the school paper for egg donation. I considered it without thinking about medical repercussions. Ivy educated, premium eggs! But they always wanted white, tall, blonde.

Would I have done it? I don’t know. But I have the luxury of choice.

Caregivers sacrifice time with their own families to work for other families. That’s the same choice, you see it all the time, it’s just not a dramatic backdrop of a book. When the baby nurse I know hasn’t seen her kids in decades because she’s not legal here, and she’s just trying to save as much as she can, and she sends it all home, that’s for freedom, for her kids, not for her. Future generations: that’s what they are banking on.

Rumpus: Ate is a baby nurse to the wealthy, compensated handsomely, yet she lives in the dorm in Queens because she sends her entire income home.

Ramos: Another thing people said: She should have so much money by now! Or with Jane—why would she choose to go to the farm after being a nanny? Well, you don’t make that much money. It’s been interesting to hear people’s responses from those who have no connection to people who are struggling, because some of the stuff they had trouble finding believable, it’s not unbelievable. It just shows the gap between us because of inequality. If you are privileged you can’t even imagine the choices, or why you would stay on as a nanny: for free housing, for good schools.

Rumpus: Men in the book remain mostly off stage.

Ramos: When I went back to the Philippines in 2001 with my mother and my sister, we went to a midweek cockfight. It was all men. I asked, “Is it a national holiday?” My mom said, “It’s a workday.” Of course, there are plenty of Filipino men who work hard, but it’s been my experience that these women are raising other people’s kids and their own by themselves. Not even with child support. On. Their. Own.

It never occurred to me to give a husband to any of the hosts, and Leon is an invisible force. Someone actually suggested putting Mae Yu’s fiancé Ethan on the page more, to make her more likable.

Rumpus: There’s a line in the book: “In America, you only need to know how to make money. Money buys everything else.” I’m curious to what extent you see this as a cautionary tale.

Ramos: I just wanted to take a snapshot of where we are. The problem with dystopian literature is that it implies far off future, whereas this could be happening today. When I was writing that fake business plan, I thought, “I bet some people would think this is a good idea.”

I wanted to tell a complicated story using a situation that was slightly more extreme than the current reality. Is this really where we want to go? Is this what we cherish and value? Is it okay that so many women don’t have an option? Does this make you uncomfortable? Have you thought about? Will you think about it?

Rumpus: That is what’s so chilling. We are an inch from it.

Ramos: In the Ditmas workshop, someone said, “It doesn’t feel sci-fi enough.” But I didn’t want it to be sci-fi. I wanted it to be an inch away, so that it makes you question certain things. Shift your gaze a little this way or that. Look outside yourself. Now I’ve become someone who has privilege, how do I live with that, coming from where I do, knowing the people I do? It’s fiction, but very personal. I’ve been having this conversation since college. The book is inspired by people I know, so it’s been very important to me.

Rumpus: What was the biggest challenge in writing it?

Ramos: Starting to write again after so long. Giving myself permission instead of “getting a real job.” I was forty! Was I too late?

Taking the time every week to leave my kids to meet you and other writers who took my work seriously was so important. Once that happened, it was still a hard slog but I knew I was in. I was going to finish it. I didn’t know it was going to get sold but I didn’t care. I had to write it. Getting there was the hardest part.

Rumpus: What advice would you offer to someone starting out?

Ramos: You can forge any habit. You just have to start stacking up the pages. Look, I own my privilege, in that I could be home in the mornings when my kids were at school, and a lot of people cannot. Just start and don’t get discouraged—even though I did often—when you don’t know what you’re doing. It will come. I don’t plan things out. I got lucky with certain plot points. That will happen if you just sit yourself down, have faith.

Rumpus: It’s so important to be attuned. You might not understand while you’re attaching to things at the time, but then they start to make sense within the logic of a project as you delve in. Like, if you hadn’t already been thinking about a book, would you have noticed that surrogacy article?

Ramos: Right. Even those initial months of logging shitty hours, as discouraging as they were, I was doing it. So: sit down. Write. Don’t think beyond that. I wrote one book. I don’t know that I have great advice. 

Rumpus: I’m not sure if this is true for you, but it can be paralyzing to think about a “book” as opposed to just writing. You can get in your own way.

Ramos: Someone told me the second book is harder for this reason. With the first, I was in this little bubble: often isolating and insecure, but I had the freedom of being old, in my forties, and new, starting a new career. My next book will have more pressure and expectation. Should I be writing? Shouldn’t I be trying to make the world a better place? The world is fucked up. It can feel indulgent.

Rumpus: Yet here you are, with a vital, urgent story that’s going to crack rooms and conversations wide open. Who are your literary heroes? Did you keep any of them close when you were writing?

Ramos: Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary made me want to write. Part of it was she was so in tune with the world. She noticed everything. I loved it. She helped me a lot with my character, Reagan, though I’m not sure why. Another book that I admire, that I could never write but that I kept close in that talismanic way is Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It was so beautiful and well written and shone a light on a world and people I didn’t know about. It informed what I wanted to do in fictional terms: to bring visibility to these stories.

Rumpus: Do you have a favorite hour? 

Ramos: I work best in the early morning, which I can’t do because I have three kids who need to be fed and things, but as soon as they were out, I’d get to work. I didn’t have coffee with mommies any more. I was trying to prioritize. The book always got a touch, and everything had to fit in after that.

If I didn’t protect my time, it wouldn’t happen. Summers were hard, but even thirty minutes helped, just to stay in it. As for place, I like to move around. I like cafes. I like white noise. I always start by writing in my journal. Virginia Woolf talked about that. A place to experiment, keep word banks, etc. Or I would play piano, or draw a bit, something to get me in the mood because it’s hard to shift from house and child stuff to writing.

Rumpus: I know you said you don’t outline, but how did you wrangle the complicated four story line structure? 

Ramos: I went on a lot of walks. Things would come up. I had files for each of my characters, where I’d jot, maybe this would happen as I went along. Someone told me to read—maybe it was you?—Zadie Smith’s piece from the lecture she gave at Columbia: “That Crafty Feeling.“ That made me feel better about my process. I need the unknown. I’ll start with a sentence, a tone.

Rumpus: It was me! The breakdown of macro/micro planners. So, your path to publication has been charmed. Can you talk through how it happened? Give us a little vicarious pleasure. 

Ramos: I finished. I edited vertically, by character, and then again horizontally. Meanwhile, I’d kept a file of any agent ever mentioned to me. “Oh, you’re writing a book! My old roommate’s mother is an agent,” and so on. When it was time, I used whatever connections just to avoid the slush pile. I sent it out to four agents in mid-December. Within a few days, I had my first offer, which I used to meet with the others. And then I had a meltdown, existential crisis, crying a lot. I wasn’t expecting it.

I went with the agent who said: “Most first time authors feel when their book is done, that’s the end. When in fact, it’s the beginning of the conversation. And you can’t control who’s let in. You should just know that.” I loved that. I felt she was honest with me from the get-go.

She just got it. I chose in January, had to finish revisions by London Book Fair, which was another month and a half. Then we sent it out on a Friday and got our first offer that Monday. We sold it on Wednesday. And then the foreign markets.

Rumpus: One of the first things I said to you was I’m going to watch you on the red carpet! I’m so happy for you! How do you feel now?

Ramos: Overwhelmed, excited, overwhelmed.

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Photograph of Joanne Ramos © John Dolan.


Sara Lippmann‘s collection Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts and her work has appeared widely in print and online, notably Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Diagram, Midnight Breakfast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s College and lives with her family in Brooklyn. Find her at saralippmann.com or @saralippmann. More from this author →