by Luz Schweig
Part of LibroMobile's Tiny Reviews series
Carmen Rita Wong’s memoir Why Didn’t You Tell Me? traces the turbulent path of a young girl attempting to make sense of her mixed racial and cultural identity, while trying desperately to feel like she belongs. From a colorful life steeped in the urban fusion of Harlem’s Dominican, Chinese, and Black cultures—surrounded by extended family—to the isolating vanilla monotony of white, New England suburbia in the 1970s, Carmen’s life unfolds within extreme realities she struggles to decipher, while suspecting the “truths” presented to her.
Truth appeared to be negotiable in Carmen’s family according to how well it served the goal of assimilating into white culture. Looking for a way for his second family to stay in the U.S., Carmen’s Dominican immigrant Abuelo paid off two Chinese hustlers with green cards to marry his teenage daughters, “because the Chinese were the closest thing to a white man.” Carmen thus inherits a legacy of desperation, in which survival takes precedence over one’s roots, one’s person, one’s truth.
The author’s relationship with her mother, Lupe—a major thread in this memoir—oscillates between appreciation and resentment, as we witness Carmen working through layers of betrayal and sympathy over decades. Lupe’s secretive, narcissistic ways, and the enabling men she surrounds herself with, demand that Carmen submit to her.
Lupe leaves Carmen’s gambling, gangster father when she was just two . Then—true to her programing—Carmen’s mother remarries a white man, and takes on the role of a robotic, Stepford wife to assimilate. Inevitably, Carmen internalizes the message her mother models: that being herself is not good enough.
Up against the world’s prejudices, and following her mother’s lead, Carmen discovers that passing for white works well, until it doesn’t—until the insidious effects of trauma catch up with her, and her Chinese Afro-Latina heritage demands to be reclaimed. It soon becomes apparent that doing so necessitates that Carmen individuate from her overbearing mother.
Carmen Rita Wong’s memoir is a thoughtful narrative of generational trauma, as she traces abuse back to corrupt governments and the passing down of beatings—systemic, or other. As the recipient of her mother’s own beatings, terrified of her mother’s misdirected anger, hair yanking, pinching, Carmen displays resilience and conscious deliberation to break the chain of abuse for future generations.
Yet the author’s writing tone can, at times, appear removed from her own feelings, executed in somewhat of a matter-of-fact style leaving the storyline wanting for more nuance and profundity when she writes about issues pertaining to her own motherhood, for example, which we peek into only minimally, as if through a cracked door.
Secrets and untruths ferment throughout the book, over decades, bubbling up into the thick froth of Carmen’s existential crisis. The poignant tension between the mother’s manipulation of reality, and Carmen’s deprivation of a truth as foundational as her own paternity, is most palpable. And yet, there is a melancholic hollow in the narrative where one might reasonably expect anger, which is conspicuous by its absence.
Whether identity truths were buried under head scarves, or hidden away in closets (like the dubious photograph that caused Carmen to question her own paternity), this memoir paints a brave portrait of a woman who refused to sacrifice her whole self—in all its glorious cultural and ethnic diversity—for a lie. We learn that excavated lies of others are overrated, compared to the satisfaction that comes from living one’s own truth.
Luz Schweig (she, her, ella) is an editor at Somos en Escrito Literary Foundation Press, who grew up in La Ciudad de México, and loves exploring new ways to connect with her ancestral roots.