Surrogate mothers, anyone?

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - January 23, 2021 - 12:00am

Filipina-American novelist Joanne Ramos read an article in the Wall Street Journal on surrogate mothers in India, and this became the germ for her provocative novel, “The Farm.” A novel that is a page-turner, it’s also perfect for book-club discussion and so Netflix-ready.

Ramos tells a compelling and entertaining story about Jane, an immigrant from the Philippines, whose cousin Ate, an undocumented alien, convinces her to apply to The Farm. This place sounds like a paradise in upstate New York. Golden Oaks is a posh “gestational retreat” that pays a lot of money to its surrogates, who are either white (“premium rate”), black, brown (Filipinas) or from the islands (Caribbean). In true Philippine fashion, the single-mother Jane does this to provide a good life for her daughter, the baby Amalia.

It all sounds fine and dandy, but the surrogate mothers stay in a golden cage. They eat good food and stay in luxurious quarters until they give birth, but their every movement is monitored by an eye like a panopticon.

Similarly, Ramos has an unerring eye for characterization. Her description of the Filipino immigrants’ quarters are spot-on. She has a pulse on the motivations around which Filipino families overseas pivot.

“There is always someone in the dorm (for 30 Filipino immigrants) – resting before the night shift, off work for the weekend, biding time before a new job… A good portion of them are mothers who have left their own children back home. They dote on Amalia, the only baby in their midst. The only baby with a mother desperate enough to bring her child to live among them.”

Ramos is also a Princeton University graduate who has worked in investment banking. Aside from the fluid passages about Filipino immigrant life, the other strength of this novel is the savage satire on the language and lives of people in Manhattan.

In contrast to the Filipino’s quarters, Ate’s clients have houses “with five or six toilets and sometimes more, and so many rooms that several of them had only one use – a library for books, a gym for exercise, an alcove just for wine!”

Golden Oaks is run by Mae Yu, a shrewd businesswoman who was raised by a Chinese immigrant father and an American mother who never forgave her husband for being poor. Mae went to the Harvard Business School on scholarship and clawed her way up to reach her American Dream. She wants to match Regan with the ageing billionaire Madame Deng, so she can have a “record-breaking year-end bonus” that she will use to renovate her bathroom and buy her mother a Hermès bag.

“Really, Mae muses, what she could use are a few more Filipinas – they are popular with Clients, because their English is good and their personalities are mild and service-oriented.”

Serving as roommate for Jane is the amateur photographer Reagan, who represents the white, liberal guilt. The foil is found in Lisa, who speaks her mind and is contrarian to the rigid rules of Golden Oaks. She has carried three pregnancies for one family and says with cool defiance: “I am my hormones.”

Even if cast as a villain, Mae’s insights are laser-sharp. “She never understood why people – privileged people especially, like Reagan and Katie – insist that there’s something shameful in desiring money. No immigrant ever apologized for wanting a nicer life.”

The novel is told in alternating voices, the better for us to get a deeper insight into the motivations that move the characters. The surrogate mothers (called Hosts) have no names; instead, they have numbers. Their diet is monitored, their bodies checked for ticks after they have walked on the nature trails. They must also wear a WellBand on their wrist, which monitors their heart rate and location. Everything is being done to produce healthy “uber babies.” It all reminds you of an Orwellian prison and not a bespoke spa where the women wear robes made of cashmere.

Parts of “The Farm” remind you of Margaret Atwood’s foundational dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But the picture that Ramos paints is more sunny, as well-lit as the next Golden Oaks that would be built in California. Atwood skewers fascism; Ramos, American capitalism.

The arrangement is that the Hosts are paid a small amount each month, but “the bonus, the big money Ms. Yu promised […] That is only at the end.” If a Host miscarries, misbehaves or delivers a defective child, the bonus won’t be given.

Ramos is a writer for The Economist and she writes spare and beautiful prose. You keep on turning the pages even deep into the night. However, this novel is marred by an ending that seems half-baked. After cutting up capitalism and its discontents, it seems to have copped out and reconciles with almost everything, creating the effect of an apology. The prose in the final chapter mirrors this half-hearted resolution. It lacks the vigor and vibrance of the preceding 300 pages.

Like every immigrant, Jane also feels the pang of homesickness.

“Jane is engulfed by the desire, so sharp it cuts, to be alone. Away from these strangers and their too-fast, too-smart talking. She longs to be in bed with Amalia watching television. She wants to palm her baby’s fat belly until Amalia falls asleep, her arms flung up over her head as is her habit, so open and trusting, like the world could never do her harm…”

Or listen to Ate, the 70-year-old caregiver who has taken care of other people’s children all her life. “In the Philippines, the old people smell good, like talcum powder and soap. Your family takes care of you, and if they do not, your ‘yaya’ will. This is why, when it’s Ate’s time, she will return home to her big house on her new land and live with her son Roy, and maybe, Romuelo. And of course, her daughters. Her good girls.”

Lovely insights like this, along with her sharp mind, bode well for Joanne Ramos as an exciting novelist for the 21st century.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com. Danton Remoto’s novel, Riverrun, has just been published by Penguin Books.

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