Annenberg Radio

Office Hours with Professor Karen Tongson

Julia Lin talks to Professor Tongson about Caroline O’Donoghue’s latest young adult novel, “All Our Hidden Gifts.”

In her last episode of the semester, Julia Lin talks to Professor Tongson about reading to relax, learn and experience the world.


Welcome back to Office hours, it’s the final episode of our first ever season which means, for you, that yes, we’ve made it through another semester so if someone hasn’t congratulated you for that yet, let me be the first. You’re surviving. You’re pretty awesome for that. And, another pretty awesome human being is Professor Karen Tongson who is a USC Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, English and American Studies and Ethnicity, as well as the chair of the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies. In other words, she knows a lot about the world. And I was lucky enough to get to sit down virtually and talk with her about that. So, for the last time this semester, let’s talk about books.

The first question I have is pretty basic and it’s just what book or books are you reading right now or are you reading a book right now? I know it is a very busy time.

You know, when I get asked this question, it’s really hard for me to answer it in a way, because technically I’m reading or having to look at a bunch of different books at all times to teach, but also to do certain events. So in addition to the books that I’ve been reading for the food studies class I’m teaching through gender and sexuality studies, I, you know, have been reading to prepare for various events, Visions and Voices events as well.

I’m going to be doing a Visions and Voices event with Tegan and Sara. So I’ve been reading their memoir, Tegan and Sarah’s “High School,” and that’s something that I’m currently in the middle of reading as well. And the other books that I’ve really enjoyed and that have been a surprise a while I’ve been reading for classes is a rare book of essays on philippine food and culture called “Tikim” by Doreen Fernandez, who is a food critic, and he wrote for numerous Filipino newspapers.

I did also read one book for pleasure that I really kind of cling to as a totally relaxing experience amidst everything and that is Caroline O’Donoghue’s latest young adult novel, “All Our Hidden Gifts.”

In terms of like a pleasure read, the reason that I was reading the book is that I met Caroline and she writes non-young adult, I mean, she writes regular fiction for, I suppose, old adults like me. But the reason that I read this particular book is that, you know, I met her when I appeared on her podcast in the U.K. called “Sentimental Garbage,” where she — it’s a wonderful podcast because part of what it dives into is like people come on the show to talk about kind of what people would loosely call chick-lit or trashy books and things like that.

We were having this series of conversations and it turned out that one of the characters she was writing in “All Our Hidden Gifts” was Filipino-Irish. And so we got to talking about my relationship to mysticism and the tarot because the character is ... one of the driving plots, the driving motif of “All Our Hidden Gifts” is that it’s about these young people learning and discovering their gifts in divination and using the tarot and kind of being freaked out by it in different ways, like the unwieldiness of learning these new and strange talents which is such a great metaphor for just growing anyway, being an adult. It had a lot of different resonances for me. And so I really enjoyed curling up and reading it in my little reading chair,or not so little reading chair, on weekends in the last couple of months.

That sounds really wonderful and so I’m kind of curious about why you think it is important that we read and that people read, because I think that’s like, when I was thinking about starting this podcast for me, it was kind of wanting to remind people that books are this incredible — and reading the news and books — both of those things are these incredible sources of not only wisdom, but also just a chance to look at ourselves and look at the world around us. And so I guess the question I would pull from that is like what role do you think that books have and why is it important that people read?

I’ll begin by saying, well, I think that, you know, I mean, I’m guilty of this, too. I think that we’re barraged with so much information and information is instantly available to us.

So that’s part of why I think reading and that’s why I do think books and other, you know, other modes of reading are engaging longer works or more durational works, maybe is about remembering how to experience time differently. It’s about, you know, I suppose, not existing in a space of dopamine hits and instant gratification in that kind of thing and allowing yourself to really disappear into another place or into another world or into another mind.

What’s going on in somebody else’s head, right? And so to be outside of oneself and I think that, you know, we’re constantly being encouraged to consistently be within ourselves and inhabit ourselves and perform ourselves and be ourselves, that we don’t indulge ourselves enough in the forms of fantasy excursion and empathy that reading makes possible.

I would encourage anybody who listens to give yourself the space to do this. I think that, you know, especially with students, especially with people involved in the university, you’re just kind of reading on the fly always. Right? Because you have so much to read. But giving yourself the space, like even if it’s just a chair, I have a chair dedicated, a very comfortable chair dedicated to reading and just going there and just kind of sitting there, like just giving myself that chair in that time allows me to really leave where I am to experience something new, even if, ironically, I’m just staying put in a comfortable place.

“Spaces” is such a word that I’ve been thinking about recently, so I think like definitely … challenging and encouraging ourselves to create that space, whatever it looks like is something that’s so important. So thank you for that and thank you for everything that you’ve shared today. Those are all the questions that I have. Is there anything else that you want to add or books that you want to plug or anything like that?

I just wanted to be able to answer your questions. We talked a little bit about autobiography earlier and my most recent book is a mixed memoir. It’s a biography of Karen Carpenter, but it’s also my autobiography because I was named after her. Not a complete autobiography, but it tells aspects of my story alongside hers, because we both are named Karen, which I know is a very fraught name at the contemporary moment. But it’s also like if you want to understand what that’s about, you know, Karen Carpenter is like the quintessential white Karen. And I’m definitely not a white Karen. I’m not white, first of all. But I’m also not, you know, in any way kind of discernible as someone who is of that, you know, genre of person. But part of what it does is it kind of explains to you that interface of Karen’s and also it animates, I think, a lot of what we’ve talked about today about what it’s like to inhabit somebody else’s story and have that become part of your own, or have, you know, your interpretation of culture and what you’re reading, what you’re listening to, what you’re hearing, maybe transform the original itself. And so I encourage folks, if they’re curious about that in those points of view, it’s a short, accessible book. It’s not a super academic, complicated scholarly work in any way, although there’s room and space to read those things. So, yeah, read that and listen to my podcast “Waiting to X-hale,” which is a gen-X-oriented podcast, but it’s also one that subsequent generations can learn a lot from.

Yes, I listened to your most recent episode yesterday and wanted to actually thank you for that, because I think it was it helped me process a lot of the things that that I’ve been thinking about recently. So thank you for making that and creating that space for all of us, regardless of what generation we’re in.

Well, thanks for inviting me to be part of this and to have done Office Hours together. I hope all is well with you and I guess we’ll all be back in the fall and we’ll see each other then.

That was Professor Tongson on her book “Why Karen Carpenter Matters”, what she’s been reading throughout the pandemic and the importance of creating space for ourselves. Which professors do you want to hear from? Send me an email and let me know. I’m Julia Lin, and this is Office Hours.