Carmen Rita Wong, WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME? A Memoir

Carmen Rita Wong, WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME? A Memoir

Zibby speaks to former national television host, advice columnist, nonprofit board leader, and professor Carmen Rita Wong about Why Didn’t You Tell Me?, an explosive and raw memoir about an immigrant mother’s powerful secret and how it upends her Dominican-Chinese daughter’s life. Carmen delves into her fascinating story, which involves a deceptive mother, a gangster father, a genealogist, generational trauma, racism, and a lifelong identity crisis. She also talks about her wonderful daughter, her career in journalism, and what she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Hi there.

Carmen Rita Wong: How are you?

Zibby: I love your beautiful bookshelf back there. That’s awesome.

Carmen: Yours too. Gorgeous.

Zibby: Thank you.

Carmen: Oh, my gosh, it’s so much neater than mine.

Zibby: Oh, please. No. You should see what’s going on right over there. I was literally in tears this morning. I was like, there are so many books. I just stacked them all up on the window. I can’t even.

Carmen: This is me. I have to book-sort every once in a while because it’s just piles.

Zibby: I know. It’s so bad.

Carmen: This is your life. This is what you do, so you must just get bombarded.

Zibby: I do, mostly with books I want to be bombarded by. The sheer volume, I can’t get every book that looks remotely good anymore. Anyway, whatever.

Carmen: By the way, you know this, this is a whole Japanese — there’s a word for this. It’s very normal to be surrounded by books that you can’t read, you don’t have time to read. There’s no way you can read them. The want and the whole idea of collecting books and surrounding yourself with them, it’s a whole practice. This made me feel better when I found out about this. I was like, okay. I haven’t read half of them, but I want them. I want to be surrounded by them.

Zibby: Tell me why this is okay, this compulsion to collect books. How is it good? Tell me.

Carmen: Listen, for me, I know that it’s always been since I was that little kid who — the library was my church, my escape from everything. That comfort of being surrounded — my daughter, unfortunately, is the same way. Wherever we go, she may read one, but she has to take a whole pile of books with her. She calls it her comfort bag. I’m kind of the same. In Japanese culture, it is considered just another form of art collecting because these are pieces of people. This is art to me. These are people and souls and work and all these things. I just love being surrounded by them.

Zibby: That could’ve come out of my mouth, but I’m glad it came out of yours.

Carmen: Something we share, yes.

Zibby: At some point, I was really getting all meta about all the books. I’m like, when I close my door, just like Toy Story, how all the toys come alive, that all these characters would just dance around and meet each other. I’m like, what if? You don’t know. What if? Life is weird.

Carmen: touching the books and looking at them and popping in. I like to just pull one out and pop in and read a couple pages, put it back.

Zibby: I find it very calming to be surrounded by books. Anytime I’m surrounded, it’s very nice.

Carmen: Same, sister.

Zibby: Including your book, which I left next to my bed, which is where I’ve been devouring it. Thank you. Yes, there you go.

Carmen: You can see them right here.

Zibby: I sure can. Amazing. Congratulations on your book.

Carmen: Thank you.

Zibby: Tell listeners, now that we’re BFFs here — no, I’m kidding. Tell listeners about your whole story and how it became a book. Thank you for sharing all of it. I feel like I know you so well from reading it.

Carmen: Thank you so much for having me. I love, love, love sharing with people who share a love of books. It’s not just an interview. It’s an interview with somebody simpatico, which I love. I was that kid who had a difficult, lonely life, so the library was really my sanctuary, my absolute sanctuary. It was my sanity, getting lost in these stories. Even when I was a little kid, I noticed — sitting amongst those stacks and looking up having finished one, it’s kind of one of those flashbulb memories, having finished one, and I close it, and that satisfaction and then looking up. What’s next? What’s next? Noticing that the books were not written by women or by anybody who looked like me — my background, of course, being Dominican and Chinese. It’s Black. It’s Asian. It’s all these other colors. Women, we just weren’t there. I remember being a kid and being like, I’m not there, and wanting and saying to myself one day, one day, I’ll change that. I hope it changes. I want to see more of that because we’re worthy of that too. That was the first seed.

Decades and decades later, I finally got to it. This story, it’s a mother-daughter story. It’s a very American story. It’s American stories that, in the past, hadn’t gotten told a lot, which is being that child of immigrants and what that all comes with, the kind of heaviness. There’s a feeling of being the vessel of all your parents’ hopes and dreams, but also, their lives being so difficult, particularly immigrant mothers, that they’re not able to live their truth. They’re not able to live in truth. When that involves who you are as a human being — meaning, where you actually come from — it’s a big problem. I had to discover the secrets that my mother kept about who my father was, which unraveled over decades. I found out right before she died. She told another story. I thought another man was my father. She took the truth to her grave. When this book was in edits, I found him.

Zibby: No. What?

Carmen: He had passed. During the pandemic, I had hired genealogists. I did all of that. Between 23andMe, ancestry and all that, no records. This actually was quite common in people from the Caribbean. There were no records, even, or no people taking the genetic tests. Then there I was in edits one summer day. The book was coming to fruition. The story isn’t about solving that mystery of who my father is. The story is solving the mystery of my mother. Why and how could she keep something so important from me, from everyone? That’s what I did. The story, I wrote it as kind of a mystery, thriller, page-turner.

Zibby: You did.

Carmen: That’s what my life has been like. It’s been like that. Also, why do we read people’s stories? From what someone might find to be the most mundane, I find so much excitement and emotion and reality in everyone’s story. I want people to feel that.

Zibby: Totally. You did a good job. I was trying to analyze as I was reading it, what is she doing here that’s making — I could not stop reading it.

Carmen: Chocolate. It’s filled with chocolate. No, I’m kidding.

Zibby: That too. First of all, your first two pages were like, boom, listen to what secret’s coming out. That was an amazing introduction. Then we slowly got to know your mom and you and your background and brother and all of this stuff. We’re more and more invested in you and your family as the whole memoir goes on and on and then just wanting to know, what is she talking about with the picture? What does she mean? Then you would just drop these little things every so often to keep you going. You’re like, wait, what? What’s going on now? It was so great. You just didn’t want to stop until you had the full story. You’re funny, too, in the way you write it. It’s funny. It’s the heartbreak and all of it, of coming to terms with who we are and our families and all of that. Also, I feel like you poke fun at everything. It was a ride.

Carmen: It’s a ride. When you come from difficult — there’s that thing about, most comedians are quite depressed. That’s partially true. Humor saved me in many ways. It was the way that I could make my mother less angry and less sad and engage more. That kind of family clown situation and taking care of my little sisters and managing everything, you find that the one thing that unites us as people is, you just make somebody laugh. The poignancy of the why, I’m sure, comes through there as well.

Zibby: Usually in a book that has picture in the middle, I realize that early, but I didn’t until I got to that section. Then I was like, oh, my gosh, there are pictures? I was particularly struck by the one where you’re like, “See, my mom is looking into the camera, not at me. Look at me desperately clinging to my mom’s neck to get her attention, looking at her looking at my stepdad.” I think it was Marty that she was looking at in the picture. It was a heartbreaking thing. Every little kid, you’re just calling out for attention. I felt like if I was a therapist, it would be like, how can we reparent that little girl?

Carmen: Oh, my dear, I’ve been in therapy for fifteen years. That helped me really write the book. The thing is that that kid, that girl looking — I hadn’t seen that picture. When I had to dig up pictures for the book and I went back, a lot of these, I hadn’t seen in decades. I look at that picture, and I know that girl now. I see her. Oh, my god, she’s always wanted the love of her mother, the love of a parent, period. That wasn’t the case. That is part of what gets me to understand who she is and why she was like that, and also myself. Without the therapy, let me tell you, this book would not have happened because it was so important to not be angry and to not have villains or to paint my parents as villains for all these secrets and all these lies; instead, to see her as a full human being. I think and I hope — I’ve heard from readers who — I’ve just loved getting these notes where they’re like, I was so angry at my parents. I was so hurt. Parents, come on, we’re human beings. We do a lot of things. They said, you helped me to see her as a person, as a full person separate from being a parent. We are many more things than that. We take our full histories into everything. I don’t know if it’s forgiveness. I don’t necessarily forgive. That’s only because I think forgiveness requires the steps of apology and change in behavior. None of my parents have done that. However, the understanding that I have of them has brought me so much peace. It’s one of those things I wish for everybody.

Zibby: Wow, that’s nice. It’s nice to feel like you can get that. Look, I don’t know that I can fully see my mom as a person separate from me. That takes work. You have to be very intentional about doing work like that.

Carmen: Yes, it was very intentional. My intention was fueled by being a mother myself and finding myself a solo parent by the time my daughter was four and seeing myself kind of recreating things and desperately not wanting to parent my daughter in the same way and to really end that. I know people use these words a lot these days, but generational trauma is real. I made a commitment to not give that to her, to not hand it down anymore. I wanted to create new rituals and new feelings and new everything and really raise her in a different way so she wasn’t that little girl in the picture looking up at Mommy and saying, love me. Like me. Love me. That sort of thing. I work on that. It’s taken years of work, for sure.

Zibby: Time well-spent. Great book. No, I’m kidding.

Carmen: I’m trying. The book was a joy, really.

Zibby: Another piece of the book that I really enjoyed was your struggle to fit in and figure out who you were, your identity, especially in the teenage years. I wonder how you’re approaching this with your own daughter, but just wanting to dress a certain way or wanting to look a certain way. The scene with your mom when she came down with the afro — you, meanwhile, were doing whatever with mousse with your own hair to get yourself to assimilate, essentially. Then in she walks with this red, giant afro, which was also so sad when she had to cover it up and come back downstairs. That also kind of broke my heart for her, but then you being like, oh, no, no, different is not good. Different is not good.

Carmen: That was the message. What happened was is that we — my brother and I were born in Harlem, Dominican family on my mother’s side, Chinese father. Then when my mother divorced my Chinese father, she remarried an Anglo-American guy who moved us to New Hampshire. New Hampshire in the late seventies was not welcoming of us because, of course, we’re not white folks, especially my mother. She got the message early on. She tried to kind of rebel. She saw Rita Moreno on Sesame Street with this gorgeous auburn afro. She was like, mira eso, I want to be like that. She did it. My stepfather was not having it, and so she had to cover her hair. Natural hair was not right. I did a lot of things that — we can all say in retrospect, boy, I wish I could’ve been braver. I did break out in the sense that I had my hair in different styles every day. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was like, look, everyone already thinks I’m other. Let me be a little funky. I started wearing my hair natural and curly and Janet Jackson-y and all that stuff.

Even in my professional life, the second I got my TV show, it was, straighten your hair. Cut your hair. Don’t wear hoops. No red lipstick. Everything was too ethnic, too funky, too this, too that. That had been something that had been taught to me from the second we moved to New Hampshire. It was being confronted with the idea that I cannot be a full American, first of all. Second of all, the way I and my people back in Harlem, my family, dress and talk and act is all wrong. I assimilated to survive, very much so. I’ll tell this to folks. Losing my family and my culture and everything when we moved is a schism in my soul. It will never be fixed because you can’t go back. You can’t go back. It is very important to try to, when you’re raising your kids in whatever environment, just make sure that they know that they are fabulous and wonderful however they choose to express themselves.

Zibby: Do you feel, with your daughter, you’re immersing her more in culture? How are you doing that? How are you righting that wrong?

Carmen: Unfortunately, most of my family has passed. She’s taken Mandarin forever, so she was able to speak with her grandfather, her , until he passed away in June. My mother’s family is mostly gone. We’ve traveled a lot. My friends are a group of wonderful Black and Latina women, tías and titis, who just embrace her fully. Because her father was German descent, she’s white presenting, appearing, but she’s very much a Latina. She’s very excited that Anya Taylor-Joy is out there because she’s Latina, and she’s blond and pale. She’s like, “I’m Latina like her.” She’s very much aware of all of those dynamics. Also, too, we’re both queer women, girls. She’s sixteen now. She’s had a girlfriend for a year. All of her identities, all the parts to who she is that I couldn’t express, I’m making sure to respect that in her and to encourage her very much to be who she really wants to be. She even shaved the side of her head when she was ten.

Zibby: Oh, wow.

Carmen: It was so cute, though. Of course, now she looks back on it, and she’s like, “What? That was so weird.” I was like, “It was cool.”

Zibby: You’re a much cooler mom than me. I have two fifteen-year-olds, almost sixteen. Then I have an eight and a nine-year-old. I let my fifteen-year-old daughter dye her hair during the pandemic because who cares? Even still, now my nine-year-old is like, “I want purple hair. I’ve got to get pink and purples in my hair.” I’m like, “I don’t think so.” Maybe if I were cooler, I’d be like, why not?

Carmen: My thing is, look, let them rebel this way. I think, of course, it’s me because I wasn’t allowed. Trust me when I tell you that I rebelled later.

Zibby: I feel like there was a lot unsaid about your first year at college. You were like, and then I went to college, and boy did I have fun. At one point, you were like, and I had lots of boyfriends because of that first year at college. I’m like, what happened in her first year at college?

Carmen: I was a hot mess. I was such a hot mess. I was drinking and hooking up with the soccer team. I equate it to just an absolute beast being let out of the cage. The amount of control that was exerted on me through my childhood and high school at home, and the responsibility — I had to get straight A’s, or death. That’s a typical Latin thing. I had my little sisters. I had a job. I was pulling twelve-hour days on the weekends. I was working after school and had to get straight A’s. By the time I went to school and, literally, all I had to do was go to class, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went absolutely nuts. I spent the next three years making up for almost failing that first year of college. My parents — I came back. They got the grades. They were just like, listen, if this is the way it’s going to be, money is better spent elsewhere. I was like, oh, hell no. It was an escape. I put my head down. I paid attention. I still acted out once in a while. Have fun with your life, ladies. No judgement.

Zibby: Tell me about going into TV and all of that and what you’re doing now.

Carmen: At first, I was in the art business, which was wild. I have some stories in the book about celebrities and things that happened in that business, at Christie’s.

Zibby: Wait, who was it?

Carmen: Tupac.

Zibby: Yeah, Tupac, or some model. Wasn’t it a model party?

Carmen: Christy Turlington, yes. For me, who went from the stacks of a library in New Hampshire to a couple years out of college, ending up at Christie’s auction house kicking Tupac out of the bathroom, and Christy Turlington and all the fabulous models of the nineties, I was in heaven. I did some messy things like get married early because I thought it was what I was supposed to do, and get divorced. I ended up in the magazine business. I really did my best to work my way through that, which was not very welcoming to me, of course. They would say to me I couldn’t be a reporter or a journalist because I couldn’t be objective because I wasn’t white.

Zibby: Stop. Seriously?

Carmen: Yes. Ask anybody in the business back then. This was the nineties. That was absolutely the way things were. Things started changing slowly. Then the internet happened and started destroying magazines. I wrote my first book and ended up promoting it on television. Boom, within a year after getting laid off from Money magazine, I had my own daily TV show. I had a toddler. I was remarried. That was just wild. I never want to go back. I survived. That was intense times. It was a very fulfilling job in many ways, but the most difficult time of my life, for sure.

Zibby: That’s a lot. That’s a lot of inputs to manage.

Carmen: It was a lot of inputs. However, because I ended up in finance because of my stepfather — my Chinese father was literally a gangster. My stepfather was economics from Columbia, in the tech business early up there in Massachusetts. I was surrounded by Wall Street Journal and Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser and all that, so I learned all of that through him. Being a woman of color in that space at that time, that was some trailblazing stuff. I was able to build an incredible consulting and speaking business and all of that, and writing, through that. One thing I have to say is — a lot of people say, but your stepfather and the money, that really, really helped you. I have to say, building my business was very much about Papi Wong. He taught me multiple income streams and how to really keep things moving. All of those parents, all of them, really shaped how I managed my career, for sure.

Zibby: Interesting. What are you doing now, then? Are you going to write another book after this? What’s your ambition and all of that?

Carmen: Yes, yes, yes. Thankfully, I’m writing. I’m writing, writing. This book was a huge dream of mine. It took five years from first proposal to fruition. All I wanted was a hardcover, which I got. Paperback comes out this summer. The Spanish-language version is out. Yes, I’m working on my next book. I’m excited to say that it involves a story of an incredible couple, a Holocaust survivor and the first Black woman to own a news network in the country, sixty-three years married. Gloria Steinem will be writing the forward. They were leaders in the feminist movement, the abortion movement. He was Shirley Chisholm’s campaign manager. This is an incredible love story, a story of resilience. I just want to write these stories that we don’t hear enough. I think there’s a lot more stars of American history that we don’t know. That’s what I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be telling their stories.

Zibby: Amazing. Abortion played a big role in your unlocking clues and stuff to your own history. Interesting to keep it coursing through.

Carmen: Yes, for sure. Serendipity, one of my favorite words.

Zibby: Exactly. Do you make time to read these days? I know we talked all about your shelves.

Carmen: I do. Yes, I’m a book collector.

Zibby: When you read, what’s your go-to? What’s your go-to genre or your favorite things to read or whatever?

Carmen: You know what I’ve been reading now? I go through phases. Right now, I’m really into — one of my favorites is sci-fi. That’s one of my old favorites. My brother and I, our favorite book was Dune. We were such nerds. Now Ted Wong’s anthology. I’m looking forward to a couple of other sci-fi anthologies. I just got Philip K. Dick’s anthology. I love reading women of color, for sure, because we haven’t heard enough. Right now in this moment you’re talking to me, that’s where I’m at. I think it’s just pure escapism. I think sometimes it’s nice to revisit. Philip K. Dick, I’ve read for decades, but I hadn’t read him in a while. I want to go back there.

Zibby: Amazing. Quite a story, from getting pulled over with your family for looking Puerto Rican or whatever and that crazy scene when you were in New Hampshire to just being a total badass. It’s just amazing. The whole trajectory is so cool. I really enjoyed the read and getting to know you through the book, but also today. Thank you.

Carmen: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me. I love being on with book lovers. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. Take care. Bye, Carmen.

Carmen: Take care. Bye.

Carmen Rita Wong, WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME? A Memoir

WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME? A Memoir by Carmen Rita Wong

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