To celebrate Memoir March, we spoke to the authors of this spring’s most exciting memoirs about their research processes, writing roadblocks and biggest fears as they put their personal stories out into the world. Elizabeth Miki Brina shares some of the joys and difficulties behind her book, Speak, Okinawa, about whether love can heal a family traumatized by racism and colonization.
What do you love most about your book?
I love how my book aims to capture more than my life and my story—or rather, how my life and my story encompass so many other lives and stories, including my mother’s story, my father’s story, the history of the people of Okinawa. Through writing this book, I love how I was able to realize the connectedness of it all, to understand myself and my place in this world, the events that had to transpire, the hardships that had to be endured and overcome in order for me to exist.
What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book?
Readers who are children of immigrants. Readers who are biracial or have multicultural heritage. Readers who were once estranged from their mothers or fathers and therefore from their origins. Readers who want to witness this experience.
What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
I hope readers don’t have a hard time believing anything—but what was hard for me to believe is how I really didn’t know myself for most of my life. I avoided and denied such important aspects of my identity for so long, and that took a huge toll on me and greatly hindered my ability to love and be loved. Still does. I grew up trying to believe that race, family history and cultural history were inconsequential. I’m glad I don’t believe that anymore.
What resistance did you face while writing this book?
I got nothing but support and encouragement from others as I was writing this book. The resistance I faced was from myself: deciding what personal details to share or not share, deciding what was mine or not mine to tell, and knowing that these decisions would affect and alter the narrative as well as the reader’s perception of and attitude toward the people being portrayed. That is a great deal of responsibility I didn’t want to abuse. Kept me awake some nights.
Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
I was surprised by how much I remembered, and how much my perspective on memories shifted as I was writing, rewriting and revising. There were so many revelations I could only have reached by putting memories on paper, seeing them reflected back at me, trying to view them objectively and finding the precise words to describe them.
Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
I’m definitely nervous for my parents to read the book. I’m nervous for them to read their secrets. I hope they forgive me.
"In a memoir, I can be judged and evaluated and hopefully redeemed as me, a real person, not a fictional character."
How do you feel now that you’ve put this story to the page?
I feel very scraped out but also fuller and more complete. I feel relief.
What's one way that your book is better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel?
In a memoir, I can claim my experiences and observations as my own. I can be judged and evaluated and hopefully redeemed as me, a real person, not a fictional character.
Many people think writing memoir means you just write from memory and don’t have to do research, but obviously that’s not true. What is the most interesting thing you had to research in order to write this book?
Everything I researched was interesting to me. The history of Okinawa, which I hadn’t learned before writing the book and which helped me better understand myself and my mother. The life of my mother, which I hadn’t learned about before writing the book either. Our conservations, asking and answering questions, helped heal our relationship and brought us closer.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.
Author photo credit: Thad Lee