When Joanne Ramos was trying to get a literary agent after writing The Farm, she pitched her debut novel as “Handmaid’s Tale meets The Help.”
When a publisher first bought Leni Zuma’s Red Clocks, it was referred to as “A Handmaid’s Tale for the 21st Century.”
Both books have been called dystopian and critics reviewing them often make reference to Margaret Atwood’s chilling 1985 classic, which has enjoyed a revival thanks to the recently published sequel The Testaments and popularity of the Handmaid’s Tale series on Hulu. The Los Angeles Times Books review called The Farm “A different Handmaid’s Tale.” The Guardian referred to it as an “Atwood-style dystopia debut.” Meanwhile, the New York Times included Red Clocks in a roundup of books of feminist dystopian fiction that are “channelling women’s anger and anxiety.” It was presented as part of a new wave of fiction that perfectly aligned with the resurgence of Atwood’s book, which the Times reports has sold 3.5 million copies since 2017.
The fact that Atwood has become a marketing strategy for publishers is evidence of the growing influence of the author, who the Times calls the “patron saint of feminist dystopian fiction.” The release of The Testaments last month was probably the biggest publishing event in recent history. Her recent appearance in Calgary was sold out within hours of being announced.
But, curiously, while both Ramos and Zumas have read and are aware of The Handmaid’s Tale, neither saw it as much of an inspiration for their own novels.
In Ramos’s The Farm, women voluntarily sign up to live in a luxury retreat and act as surrogates for rich clients. They are paid handsomely and many, such as the main protagonist Jane, are poor and in desperate need of funds. But as the novel progresses, the women’s rights and ability to control their body is slowly stripped away, albeit with a smile and excuses about protecting the health of the foetus. The book sprang from the author’s conflicted feelings about capitalism and the myth that meritocracy is the major driver of economic success.
Born in the Philippines, Ramos is a Princeton graduate who worked in investment banking before turning her attention to writing. The initial spark of the book came from arguments she would have with her immigrant father, who was a true believer in the American Dream being available to all. She didn’t see The Farm as dystopian at all.
“In retrospect, I can definitely see what everyone is talking about when our books are lumped together with Testaments coming out and the popularity of the (Handmaid’s Tale) show and I don’t necessarily disagree with it,” says Ramos, who will be joining Zumas for a panel discussion at Wordfest’s Imaginairium on Oct. 21. “But, it’s funny, when I started writing (The Farm) it took me a year and a half to find the story of a surrogacy facility. It started out as an attempt to write a much more intimate story about a young Filipina nurse who leaves her baby with relatives to take care of a wealthier person’s child. That’s how it started out. It’s not a dystopian tale at all, it happens all the time.”
The novel took a more disturbing turn after Ramos read about a surrogacy facility in India, but even then Ramos was thinking more about free trade and capitalism than reproductive freedom.
“I can see why people call it dystopian, because my book is about pregnancy and the agency of a woman’s body,” she says. “But unlike the Handmaid’s Tale, they chose to do it. For me, that was more interesting. Because I was resuscitating these arguments with my dad, which is ‘Is free trade really free? Is every transaction beneficial?’”
Still, it could be argued that The Farm and Red Clocks are even more unsettling than the Handmaid’s Tale, which imagined a world run by totalitarian Christians after a infertility crisis leads to child-bearing women being treated as reproductive slaves for a rich theocracy. What’s perhaps most disturbing about the worlds created by Ramos and Zumas is that they are so recognizable.
While the exact sort of luxury surrogacy facilities imagined in The Farm may not yet exist, everything else in the book does.
“What I did was just take where we are and I pushed it forward a few inches because I wanted to make a compelling story that a reader may be able to immerse herself in and go along for the ride and pop out at the other end and think ‘God, that was disturbing and scary,’ Ramos says. “Then you ask yourself, why is this scary? What part of this isn’t already true?”
Red Clocks imagines a world where abortion has been made illegal thanks to a relatively new president who is hostile to women’s reproductive rights. Zumas tells the story through the eyes of women in a small-town Oregon. One is a single teacher desperate to conceive. Another is her teenage student pregnant with an unwanted baby. Zumas says the novel was initially inspired by her own struggles with fertility. It was timely, she thought, but she had no idea how close it would come to reflecting a growing political sentiment in the U.S.
“I started writing it in 2010 and so I was basing my ideas on things politicians had actually said, but they seemed so fringe then that it felt more of an imaginative leap than it does now,” Zumas says. “There are so many states in the U.S. where it’s nearly impossible for women to get good health care, especially if they’re poor. I look at that in a very different way than I did even when the book came out. It came out about a year into the Trump presidency. Like many of my fellow citizens, the horror was growing, but it has kept growing in a way that is hard to metabolize. Because aside from books like Orwell’s 1984 and other well-known dystopias, there’s not many road maps or precedents for how to understand the political situation here.”
Zumas said she was particularly shaken by so-called personhood amendments that were being pushed by various lawmakers in the U.S.
“Which, at the time, was a fringe conservative political agenda in the U.S.,” she says. “I saw it was one coin. On one side it was restricting abortion, on the other side it was making (in-vitro fertilization) illegal. That really hit me hard. I was thinking about these two opposing things: starting a pregnancy or ending a pregnancy and in both cases it had to do with who was choosing when and how that would happen and what’s the relationship between a woman’s interior, so to speak, and government legislation.”
She says the Handmaid’s comparisons are “a bit awkward,” since she wasn’t thinking about the book at all when creating Red Clocks. She also struggles with idea that her novel is dystopian. She wanted the world to be only a few degrees from reality.
“If a world is recognizable as our own world (but) a couple of different political things have happened, why is that dystopian and not a fictional rendering?” she says. “I wasn’t thinking of having this be in any way dystopian or science fiction, particularly for that reason. I wanted to get that pressure of ‘Yeah, this could happen next month if some votes in congress went differently.’”
Still, she is happy that there not only seems to be a new crop of books by feminist writers making waves, such as Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, but also a growing recognition of older and perhaps overlooked writers exploring similar themes, whether it be the feminist dystopian work of Suzette Haden Elgin in 1984’s The Native Tongue, work of sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler or even the 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Does she see herself as part of a movement?
“I love the word movement,” she says. “I don’t know it it’s an intentional movement or not, maybe it’s more of a publishing industry thing. But I’m so excited there are a lot more feminist or female-centric dystopian or political novels coming out. My book was at the earlier end of the publishing trends and I think speaks to the #Metoo movement and reproductive issues. Whatever reason it’s happening, I think it’s great that it’s happening.”
Leni Zumas and Joanne Ramos will join Mona Awad and E. Jean Carroll for Not So Quiet Resistance on Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. as part of the Wordfest Imaginairium at Memorial Park Library. WordFest Imaginairium runs from Oct. 14 to 23. Visit wordfest.com