Family Secrets

We talked to TueNighter Carmen Rita Wong about her new memoir, Why Didn’t You Tell Me?

A couple weeks ago during our TueNight team meeting, Margit mentioned that Carmen Rita Wong’s new memoir had just been published, and it sounded like an intense story. Here’s the official description: “An immigrant mother’s long-held secrets upend her daughter’s understanding of her family, her identity, and her place in the world in this powerful and dramatic memoir.”

I am neither the child nor grandchild of immigrants, but I’m still aware of several Big Family Secrets I can’t share as long as some relatives are still alive. So this memoir intrigued me enough to go pick up a copy at DC’s Politics and Prose. And I could not put it down. The story itself is a lot. Truth really is stranger than fiction. But what makes the story so compelling is the way she tells it, with detailed childhood memories and conversations. Either she kept hundreds of journals over the years, or she has a photographic memory. Or both.

Anyway, I reached out to Carmen to do a little Q&A about the book, its reception, and its future.

What motivated you to write this memoir, and how have your living family members reacted to it?

CRW: I distinctly remember being a kid, sitting on the floor of our local library, which was a sanctuary for me, engrossed in the wonderful feeling of being surrounded by books — like pieces of people — and having an ah-ha moment of: “Wait — Where are we? We’re not here. I’m not here.” The “we” and “I” meaning Latinx, Black, Asian women. I vowed that day to get on those shelves and open doors to others so people like me felt like we mattered. And, to change the horrible stereotypes and racism I was living in. A more selfish reason is I felt a compulsion to share what is truly a wild family story, a “telenovela,” as my daughter calls it, because having others know this part of my story makes me feel less alone in it. And, storytelling is my passion and joy. 

As for family, I’ve gotten wonderful feedback from cousins telling me that I transported them back to our lives together and helped them understand better what had happened with me and my mother.

I can’t help but wish you’d found out all these secrets before your mother died, so you could have had a chance to confront her. If that’s something you have also thought about, how do you imagine that playing out?

CRW: Before she passed, I “confronted” her once. It led to a story upon a story, both untrue. With my mother, the truth didn’t have much value because it was too painful to tell. If she were to appear before me now, I’d ask her to tell me about that time in her life. What was she like then? What was her day-to-day? What were her interests and favorite things? I’d ask her what she saw when she looked at my face. Because that’s what I come to: Getting to know her as a separate human being, faults and all, not just as my mother or my siblings’ mother or even a wife. Being angry with her passed a long time ago. What I write about in this book, how I answer the question of the title, is how I came to peace with something so painful.

You use a concrete metaphor in the middle of the book: “Sometimes I have to remind myself that my mother may have blended the concrete, but I am the architect.” I take that to mean you are the one who decided — and decides — what to DO with that concrete. This is a really powerful way of thinking about family influence and your own agency. What kind of work did it take on your part to get there?

CRW: Yes. Our parents have a large part in shaping us but we in the end have the ability to shape ourselves and change over time. Personally, I built myself up in secret until I was free of my parents. I lived a rich life in my head, planning and imagining. I read everything I could get my hands on and watched all I could, processing and analyzing everything. Essentially, creating the blueprint for my “structure.” It took a lot of work — a lot! As a young adult, I devoured books that helped me understand myself and how to process very difficult experiences and a lack of parental love into more positive ways to move ahead in life. I wanted the generational pain to stop. I found philosophy to be incredibly helpful. What is your purpose? What is the meaning of your suffering? What is really you vs. what you’ve been taught to feel and respond or taught to react instead of act? What is hardware vs. software in our programming? One of the biggest “concrete” gifts I think I was given was an innate curiosity about everything including myself — like the kid who takes apart a computer to figure it out and then puts it back together again, even better, modified. That’s me. 

In my experience and that of most of my Gen-X friends, our parents’ generation is/was very reluctant to have real conversations with us about everything from sex to menopause to our families’ pasts. There are and were a lot of secrets, probably because that’s how our parents were raised. So I’m wondering how much of your family’s secret keeping you attribute to generation v. immigrant experience.

CRW: I do attribute it to both but specifically in my mother’s case, it’s the patriarchy of that American generation combined and enforced with the machismo of Dominican culture. You can see how that even though that generation in my family caused me tremendous pain, there are no villains. They are products of their time, their place, their genders and races back then. But, that doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility to be truthful and loving as decades went by. Or frankly, even making different, better decisions from the start. Unfortunately, the lie was kept well into our generation when there was no real reason to keep it but to save reputations and “keep the peace.” I’m very glad now there is a movement to better parent our kids, to not replicate our own bad experiences growing up, and in my case, to end multiple generations of trauma. 

How has your relationship with your mother influenced your relationship with your daughter?

CRW: I parent as the flip side of my mother. I’m also a solo parent so it’s just me and my daughter and I think though we’re super close, the greatest gift I can give her is to love her as a separate, whole, different human being. Not an extension of me. To live in empathy, not control. To respect her and she respects me. To nurture her interests and not project my fears or even my dreams or my past onto to her. I’m far from perfect but I will never stop working on improving how I relate to her and to the world in general. Now that I’m 51 I can tell you it’s like I’m seeing the world clearly for the first time and truly hearing my own voice in my head, trusting my own gut, not being led by my past. It’s been the best part of being older for me.

If this book gets made into a TV series (we’d certainly watch it!), who would you want to play you, your mother, and your fathers?

CRW: Ha! I get asked this question and I get bashful. My daughter got a bunch of my girlfriends together to take me out to dinner for my birthday recently and one friend raised the topic. We had a hoot seriously casting it with some strong (but wonderfully handled) disagreements. The next morning, in our group chat, I learned the vote for my casting was won by Ariana DeBose. I love that. We may not “match” but she’s got sassafras, smarts, strength and sweetness; is queer too and could play all the various roles I’ve had in my life. I wasn’t sure about my mom but then I watched The Bear on Hulu and found Liza Colon-Zayas who plays Tina. In one of the last episodes, she gave another character a look and I swear I saw my mother appear! She’d be amazing. And for Papi Wong, I know Ke Huy Quan and James Hong, both in Everything, Everywhere All at Once, would really get him at mid-life and then as a senior. I do hope it gets made. The more of us people see, the more stories like mine we’ll get to know. Very much typical American stories. 

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