Tampa – “For a long time, I thought my mother was weak,” writes Elizabeth Miki Brina in her debut work “Speak, Okinawa.” “Because she couldn’t speak English well or read. Because she was afraid of pools and neighbors. Because she got drunk and sobbed inconsolably, and had to be carried, sometimes dragged, to bed.”
For many, the American Dream has a price. For Brina, the cost has been the struggle to come to terms with her bicultural roots and find a sense of belonging. For Brina’s mother, who escaped poverty in post-World War II Okinawa by marrying an American soldier from a wealthy family, it was being disconnected from her homeland and her family, particularly her daughter.
With searing honesty, Brina, 39, accomplishes the task of any great memoir: to make the singular speak for many. Entwining her own narrative with her parents’ opposite backgrounds and the complicated tangle of Okinawa’s history, Brina reveals how country and culture are inextricably connected to identity. “Speak, Okinawa” is a personal yet universal treatise on trauma and reconciliation, grief and resilience. It is a comfort to anyone who has felt foreign in their own skin, family or society.
“I always wanted to write about Okinawan history,” Brina says to The Japan Times, “because I always felt like understanding Okinawa was an important part of the process of understanding my own history and self-discovery in order to repair the relationship with my mother.”
Raised mostly in the suburbs of New Jersey, Brina grew up distant from her mother’s heritage and from Okinawa. Her mother never learned to speak English fluently, and at four years old, Brina could already recite picture books better than her. Brina’s yearning to fit in with a predominantly white community led to her rejecting anything Japanese, and in “Speak, Okinawa,” she writes in painful detail about how her childhood embarrassment eventually turned to withdrawal from her mother. A fish out of water in the U.S. and unable to communicate in her native language with her daughter and husband, Brina’s mother grew increasingly isolated.
The impact of language on relationships and passing on culture is a common aspect of the immigrant experience; generational consequences arise when families no longer share a mother tongue. As Brina poignantly writes in the memoir, “My mother before me is a story. A story she can’t tell me in her own language.”
During her adolescence, Brina fell in love with reading and writing, a joy she shared with her father. Inspired by S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” at 13, Brina began to dream of becoming a novelist, an aspiration she nurtured into adulthood. Yet, as she explains in her memoir, Brina’s bond with her father over books and writing only deepened the gulf between her and her mother.
It wasn’t until she was an adult that Brina came to understand how our pasts inform our futures. By writing this memoir and delving into the history of the Okinawa islands, from its early inhabitants to its colonization by Japan and then the U.S., Brina reclaimed her heritage and narrative.
The book highlights the struggles of searching for a place to belong, but it also reveals the difficulty of being caught between two cultures. As an only child and frequently the only obvious minority in white suburban America of the 1980s and ’90s, Brina writes with sensitivity and thoughtful understanding about the everyday reality of ostracization, microaggressions and careless prejudice.
“These are the first lessons we are taught in preschool,” she writes. “Which one is not like the others? We are taught to match. Colors with corresponding colors, shapes with corresponding shapes. … We are taught that sameness is correct. Sameness is desired. … I’ve already learned that people like me — and especially people like my mother — aren’t important.”
Brina’s writing shines when she reveals with frank intimacy the flaws and frailties of herself and her parents, and the historical context she provides to go along with her narrative allows the reader to empathize fully.
The book is dedicated to her parents, and Brina laughs when asked what they think about it. “My mother can’t read English, and my father hasn’t read it yet,” she says. “The plan is for him to read it aloud to her. I warned my parents, but they didn’t want any specifics. It was a kindness on their part, because they wanted me to be able to write without feeling I needed their permission. More than anything else, they’re just really proud.”
The memoir ultimately celebrates the resilience of love and the importance of squarely facing the past. And though she once considered her mother weak, Brina has since learned to understand her perseverance.
“I didn’t realize that she couldn’t change history, that history wasn’t her fault,” she writes. “That she could never escape the legacy of defeat, of trauma, perpetuated by her very own husband and daughter. That I could never escape, either. Now, whenever I try to comprehend her loneliness, I am completely overwhelmed by her strength.”
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