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'Speak, Okinawa': Elizabeth Miki Brina’s Memoir About Family, Identity And Forgiveness

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Elizabeth Miki Brina
Elizabeth Miki Brina

Elizabeth Miki Brina is the daughter of an Okinawan mother and a white American father. She has trouble fitting in at school. Her relationships with her parents are complicated by her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s PTSD. The resulting embattled dynamics threaten to break her family apart. We talk to author Elizabeth Miki Brina about her debut memoir, Speak, Okinawa.

Highlights of the interview with Elizabeth Miki Brina

On her idea of being biracial but not bicultural
I started to do some research and looking into my history and my heritage, which was an amazing revelation because it helped explain so much, helped explain why my mother was the way that she was, the inherited trauma of how she grew up in the place that she grew up. And then also mine, how I absorbed her pain from her and then accumulated my own. And even though I now understand my history, I know about my history, I learned so much about this culture, this beautiful Okinawan culture that is just... all of it.

I'm so proud of it, but because I started so late, because it wasn't until my thirties that I really started to investigate, I'm never going to be fluent in this culture. Even though I accepted it, it's always going to be separate from me. And that's something I have to accept, too. As much as I try — and the attempt is very important, the intention — it will never be completely home to me. That's something I have to live with.

On recognizing her mother's loneliness and isolation as an immigrant
That's one of the biggest regrets of my life, is that I wasn't there with her experiencing this isolation, this loneliness. We could have gone through it together. And I know so many times she tried to reach out and connect with me and talk with me. I rejected her because, you know, I blamed her. She's the reason why I'm different. She's the reason why I can't fit in. She's the reason why the world is not reflecting what I thought it should reflect.

I really pushed her away for much of my life because of her not being able to speak English as well. I thought that she couldn't teach me things. I thought she couldn't show me things. She couldn't show me how to be in this world. She can't show me how to navigate this world. In my child's mind as a teenager, I regarded her as is incompetent, and that was also something that was incredibly false and that I'm ashamed of, but it took a long time to understand that that what we were going through was the same. It took a very long time. And then through that, I finally came to that understanding of our ability to speak to each other.

All of a sudden it was easy. I shouldn't say "all of a sudden." It took a long time to get there, but once I realized that we are the same, we have a very similar struggle, we were able to communicate in ways that I call a code or shorthand. Because the love is there, and the intention is there. We can say things to each other that we don't need words for. We can express intimacy, and in many other ways.

On beginning to understand her mother more fully from understanding more about the history of Okinawa
When I was growing up, because I didn't know my history, because I didn't know how devastated Okinawa was by the battle of Okinawa and all the suffering caused by the militarization, all the crimes committed, and that my mother grew up in this world, and of having just poverty and grief... So when I learned the history, it was like I could put the blame somewhere else. Then I realized it's not her fault at all. It's not just her. She didn't do this. This was done to her. And then I also appreciate all the ways that she did survive... All the strength that it took to overcome what she overcame.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.