Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Miki Brina
February 23, 2021
A child’s relationship with their parents can be difficult, especially when the parents come from different cultures. But Elizabeth Miki Brina’s recounting of her complex relationship with her own parents, especially her mother, plumbs the depths of those differences by pairing a poignant personal narrative with a harsh yet illuminating historical perspective. The result is a searingly honest story that not only shares personal reckoning, but also exposes the profound impact of a devastating, reductive history on those who had to live with its reality.
I naively had always thought that Okinawa was simply a part of Japan – yet another example of the shallowness of history books. This small, beautiful island had been inhabited for thousands of years, divided into three kingdoms by 1314 and united in 1429 by King Shō Hashi. In 1609 it was invaded by the Japanese, and became a tributary of both China and Japan, providing a trading loophole between those two sparring nations. It was all downhill from there for the people of Okinawa, culminating in the devastating Battle of Okinawa in WWII where a quarter of the civilian population – close to 150,000 people – were killed or committed suicide. When the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945, the US was in control of Okinawa, and ever since then has maintained a strong presence, even after the return of the island to Japan. There have been 32 US military bases on Okinawa since 1951.
This is the history book version of Okinawa. But even more deeply, this is where Elizabeth Miki Brina’s grandmother fled the bombing with her four children, ages three to seven, and hid in caves, her husband gone after having been conscripted some four years earlier. This is where her mother was born, three years after the battle, “into a family, an entire people, stunned by violence and grief.”
But this is not an Okinawa that Elizabeth knew, even on her rare visits there with her mother. As a child of mixed race – her mother from Okinawa and her father an American GI stationed there – all Elizabeth knew was that her foreign-born mother was different, other, someone to be embarrassed by, with her inability to speak English well and her perceived unwillingness to learn what it was to be American, as well as her temper, her seemingly irrational fears and her alcoholism. Her mother couldn’t even pronounce Elizabeth’s name correctly, instead pronouncing it as Erizabesu; this, then, was another example of her mother’s failing.
This book, this memoir, traces Elizabeth’s journey from uncomprehending child to willingly obstinate teenager and aimlessly searching young woman to some kind of understanding of the otherness of her mother, the protectiveness of her father, and her own lack of empathy born on the balance point of desperation and privilege, with her mother as the one constant as a perceived weakness, much of which was perpetuated by a lack of a shared language.
But this narrative is far from a straightforward documentation of a mother/daughter relationship. While the story of Elizabeth’s Okinawan heritage is complex, her relationship with her father is also compelling with his coming from an educated, traditional East Coast family. And the relationship between her parents is powerful: the combination of two disparate cultures, one prosperous and triumphant, the other, impoverished and subjugated. Yet they married for love, and remained married and committed throughout their lives, despite the gaping chasms in the relationship, despite the obstacles and conflicts that were never fully overcome.
And there is the story of Okinawa itself, the one the history books don’t tell, but the people do. Sometimes reflected through the eyes of Elizabeth or her family, sometimes related by a nameless “us” of earlier generations, we learn of the heart and soul, and the tears and resolve of the people of Okinawa. One of the hardest passages for me to read was about the first Americans to set foot on Okinawa; a diplomatic mission assigned to Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1852. In my history books, it has been called a triumph, an “opening of Japan to the West.” While it achieved its aims, it was anything but diplomatic, and its bullying, aggressive tactics directly led to the oppression of Okinawa that still holds true today.
And yet, author Elizabeth Miki Brina never lets even this huge narrative arc stray too far from the story of Elizabeth, the narrator. As our hands are pulled away from our eyes in understanding the history of Okinawa and the impact of that history on the people who lived it, so are Elizabeth’s hands pulled away from her refusing to see her mother as a human being caught up in that history, and in her mothers’ massive upheaval into a new life of which she was ill-prepared to navigate and unable to communicate her fear and isolation, even to those who she most loved.
Searingly honest, unflinchingly candid, at times wittily caustic and harsh yet full of yearning and poignancy, this memoir grabbed my heart without being weighed down by injected melodrama or apology. It is one of the few books that I read on Kindle from the library, and then went out and bought hardcopy, so I would be able to page through it, pick out moments and literary images, revisit passages; touch them, run my fingers over them.
In this day and age of revisiting history to see it in a more honest, global perspective, Elizabeth Miki Brina shares with us the resonating impact of when that effort is not merely intellectual, but personal and immediate. In opening up to show us the wounds left in the wake of the lack of a shared language, experience and understanding, she allows us to bear witness to the poignant journey of an awakening awareness of the effect of those lacks. It’s a powerful lesson, a striking intimacy that Speak, Okinawa invites us to share, and learn from, if we dare.