Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir is the debut memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina and presents the author’s attempt to untie the Gordian knot of her life and her heritage. The book opens as the story of an angsty only child of an ex-military US born father and an Okinawan born mother. Elizabeth rails against and is embarrassed by her mother’s otherness, longing to blend in and be like everyone else in her town. Her mother doesn’t understand her, can’t even pronounce Elizabeth. Her father, on the other hand, is a bit stiff in a military way but is doting and permissive. Elizabeth and her father are able to talk about books. Elizabeth and her mother talk about…nothing. The silence expands and the wedge deepens.
At times Brina provides excruciating details, illustrating her teenage rebellion, her mother’s alcoholism, and her father’s almost maniacal overprotectiveness and one begins to wonder what is to be gained by sharing so much. Other authors have certainly written similar memoirs that plowed this fertile, if somewhat tawdry, ground. But what makes Brina’s book special is her willingness to keep going, to dig through the surface level muck and begin exploring and unpacking the root causes of the tension and destructive behaviors in her life. Most often people in pain want that pain to stop, reflexively shying away from its perceived source. That, dear reader, is not Speak, Okinawa.
My mother and I speak different languages. Her native language is Japanese. My native language is English. This might seem like a mundane fact about us. It’s not. It dictates everything. Because even though my mother understands and speaks English at a highly functional level, there are places inside me she can’t reach, nuances of thought and emotion I can’t express in words that make sense to her.
Eventually I realized it is my responsibility to understand her, not her responsibility to make herself understood.
Speak, Okinawa reveals itself to be a story of relationships as Brina begins to imagine how alienated and alone her mother must have felt, leaving Okinawa with her new husband to reside in the US, a country about which she knew little – none of the language, none of the culture or customs – while simultaneously leaving behind her own family. She begins to understand the comfort her mother must feel working as a hostess in a Japanese restaurant, becoming a Christian and attending a Japanese church. She begins to see the pain of decades passing without her mother returning to her homeland. She begins to consider how difficult it must have been as a mother, to be unable to connect with her only daughter.
Speak, Okinawa reveals itself to be a story about the relationship between her mother and father which, to Elizabeth’s eyes was loveless and routine, but the lens shifts revealing a devoted and tender marriage. Instead of wondering why her father continually cleans up her mother’s binge drinking vomit or questioning his willingness to allow her mother to pursue another relationship, Elizabeth comes to understand these behaviors as small acts of self-sacrifice and love. And in time, she sees her mother’s own self-sacrificial love, realizing it was there all along.
I used to deny my parents’ love for each other, because I didn’t understand it, because it didn’t fit some mold, didn’t align with some image of love I had conjured. I thought that love, true love, should involve something more than just commitment.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the book also becomes an exploration of the history of Okinawa and its often troubled relationships with the US military machine and Imperial Japan. Brina examines the cultural impact of decades, if not centuries, of a peaceful people being coopted and militarily occupied, with little consideration for the desires and hopes of the Okinawans themselves. Her exploration of the actions of Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s is both astonishing and troubling, yet another example of the powerful exacting their will on the powerless.
The Lew Chewans do not agree to sign at first. They insist that the compact indicate in writing, in bold print, that they signed under compulsion. But that would be ridiculous. That would negate the whole concept of a treaty.
And at the same time, these countries become metaphors for Elizabeth and her family. They illustrate the complexities of relationships where one thinks they know what is best for another, without ever asking, and plow ahead unrestrained. They illustrate how a child can be caught between the tensions of parents, sometimes a pawn, sometimes simply buffeted by the swirling storms, all the while the confused and conflicted innocent. It is revealing and poignant, and in the end, provides the impetus for Brina herself to begin wrestling with and embracing her own Okinawan heritage and family.
Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina is a powerful and touching story and I recommend it to you without reservation, but I hope you find it to be more than just another book. It would be easy for us to read Speak, Okinawa from a voyeuristic perspective, laughing, crying, and raging at the tragedies and victories of another. Instead, I hope it motivates each of us to begin questioning, examining, unpacking the relationships that form the fabric of our own lives. I hope it drives us to begin asking what events and circumstances formed the people around us, to ask how and why our parents, grandparents, our neighbors and the strangers around us, have come to be who and what they are. To consider how our geographic locations and cultural identities, these things we often overlook or take for granted, impact our relationships before we ever utter a word.
To me, this is the mark of a good memoir. A book that drives us to look more carefully at our own lives, rather than those portrayed in print. Speak, Okinawa: A Memoir is one of those books for me.
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