📖 🇵🇭 #42: A dystopia from the Philippines

Joanne Ramos on race, class, and surrogacy

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Joanne Ramos’s The Farm is set in Golden Oaks, a five-star baby farm in a plausible near future. At Golden Oaks, women who sign up to serve as surrogates (“Hosts”) agree to have the eggs of aging career women (“Clients”) planted into their uteruses before having their every move monitored for the duration of their pregnancies. Crucially, this isn’t Gilead—there’s no suggestion that these women are forced into surrogacy. Rather, they sign up to it—and they’re compensated accordingly.

Golden Oaks hired women to be surrogates. If you were chosen to be a Host you lived in a luxury house in the middle of the countryside where your only job was to rest and keep the baby inside of you healthy… Golden Oaks’ clients were the richest, most important people from all over the world, and for carrying their babies Hosts were paid a great deal of money.

From the outside, Golden Oaks resembles a luxury resort, complete with a swimming pool and nature trails for Hosts to explore at their leisure. But all is not as cushy as it seems: managers at the facility monitor Hosts via the WellBands they’re forced to wear, controlling their diets and exercise regimes and banning them from leaving the premises or meeting outsiders. It is accepted that most Hosts will never learn the identities of their Clients.

The novel’s first protagonist is Jane, a half-Filipina, half-American single mother who begins the novel working as a baby nurse for an upper class family in Tribeca while living in a shared dormitory with 30 other Filipinas in Queens. Upon losing her job and struggling to provide for her daughter, Jane is persuaded to move to Golden Oaks by her 67-year-old cousin Ate, who even offers to take care of Jane’s daughter while she’s away.  

Upon arriving at Golden Oaks, Jane befriends Reagan, a white colleague graduate who stands out amongst the predominantly black and Filipina surrogates as well as Lisa, a third time surrogate who has grown sceptical of the regime. Golden Oaks is run by Mae, a business school graduate and perhaps the book’s most interesting character. Raised by a Chinese immigrant father and an American mother, Mae serves as a never ending stream of troubling corporate jargon, with her talk of “uber babies” and “[maximising] fetal potential.” At one point, when Regan starts to suspect that there may be something a little exploitative about Golden Oaks, Mae simply runs her through the basics of free market capitalism. “Free trade—voluntary trade—is mutually beneficial,” she says, conclusively.

The book’s narrative rotates between these five women—Jane, Ate, Regan, Lisa, and Mae. One plot line follows the Hosts as they try to deduce which of them might be carrying the “billion-dollar baby”, another follows one of the Hosts through a health scare. But the heart of the story lies with Jane as she grows increasingly concerned about her daughter’s welfare when she stops being able to get hold of Ate.

Taking the notion of surrogacy to its capitalist extreme, Ramos uses a well-paced, propulsive plot to ask tonnes of questions about race, class, immigration, and motherhood. Is choosing to become a Host the same kind of decision for everyone? Can a Client make decisions about a Host’s body while she’s pregnant? Whose life is more important: the Host’s or the baby’s? What does the contract say? She doesn’t offer us any answers, but then again I’d have been disappointed if she did.

A compelling and challenging read which prompted me to spend an afternoon looking up surrogacy laws around the world. If you enjoy dystopias, you’ll race right through it.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos (Random House, 2019)

More books by Filipino authors

Here’s a short list of everything else I was recommended this week:

  • In the Country by Mia Alvar

  • Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

  • The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker by Gilda Cordero-Fernando

  • The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn

  • Virtual Center by Raissa Claire U Rivera

  • The Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven

  • Waking the Dead by Yvette Tan

  • The Body Papers by Grace Talusan

  • Dwellers by Eliza Victoria

  • The Age of Umbrage by Jessica Zafra

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!