The Japanese word sumimasen means “I’m sorry” as well as “thank you.” This concept perfectly describes Speak, Okinawa, a memoir by Elizabeth Miki Brina.
Brina’s father was a privileged, white American soldier when he met her mother, a nightclub hostess in Okinawa, Japan, who longed to marry up and out of a difficult life. They did marry, then settled in upstate New York to chase the American dream. Although Brina and her mother were provided for by her father, neither woman felt entirely welcome in their largely white suburb. Her mom was isolated, linguistically as well as culturally, and struggled for years with her decision to leave her family in Okinawa for life in the U.S.
Although technically a memoir, Speak, Okinawa largely centers on the different mental health crises experienced by Brina’s parents. Her father is scarred by PTSD from his service in Vietnam, as well as by a toxically masculine pressure to protect his family. Her mother has developed alcoholism after growing up in poverty and then moving to a country that’s racist against her. The question that Brina strives to answer throughout the book is whether love can heal either of them. In this way, Speak, Okinawa reads like a deeply personal apology from Brina to her mother.
Speak, Okinawa blends Brina’s own narrative of being a confused young person finding her way with her parents’ stories about their lives and the history of Okinawa. For readers who are unfamiliar with Chinese-Japanese-Okinawan-American relations, the history of Okinawa, told in the first-person plural, is jarring in the most eye-opening way. The story is strongest when Brina connects the dots between the U.S. military’s colonization of Okinawa and her family’s, as well as her own, disrespect toward her mom.
Assimilation is often touted as a goal for immigrants in the U.S., but Brina shows how difficult it is for someone to assimilate when they’re already branded as an outcast—especially within their own family.
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