Moments of Speak, Okinawa feel almost unbearable. Elizabeth Miki Brina’s complete and surprising honesty as she tells the story of her parents (a Japanese mother born in Okinawa; an all-American father) and her relationship with them can be deeply uncomfortable. The reader feels it particularly as Elizabeth recounts her own discomfort around her mother – a deeply unhappy woman who struggles to adapt to American life and is never comfortable with the language. The young Elizabeth, just wanting to fit in to a largely white community, pushes her mother away, latching instead onto her hero of a father, a man with a serious saviour complex who fought in the Vietnam war and came home with a Japanese bride.
We follow Elizabeth through many painful moments of her early life, including instances of racism, and then into adulthood as she slowly comes to the realisation that her treatment of her mother hasn’t always been fair, that her father’s fiercely protective behaviour may not have been quite right, but that ultimately, perhaps not all of it is their fault. For bound up in this family story is the story of Okinawa – a land that has always been fought over, first by the Chinese and Japanese, and then by the Japanese and the USA. It’s a land that has been treated horrifically, most prominently during the Second World War Battle of Okinawa, a supremely brutal affair that saw the landscape devastated and its citizens resort to mass suicides. This is where Elizabeth’s mother grew up, unimaginably poor – it’s the place from which she was ‘rescued’ but to which she yearns to return. All of these tragedies seep into Elizabeth’s family relations and it’s only now, with careful study, that she can understand it.
Speak, Okinawa is a wonderful, although in many ways painful, memoir that covers a lot of ground through the telling of a very personal story. Peopled with complex, flawed characters who nonetheless have a spectacular capacity to love, it’s a reminder of the depth of all human lives. Thankfully, it isn’t all tragic. For, as Elizabeth discovers, it’s never too late to put things right, to connect to something or someone formerly pushed away.