Here is Elizbeth Miki Brina’s memoir about her journey to understanding her complicated parents—her mother an Okinawan war bride, her father a Vietnam veteran—and her own, fraught cultural heritage.

Elizabeth’s mother was working as a nightclub hostess on U.S.-occupied Okinawa when she met the American soldier who would become her husband. The language barrier and power imbalance that defined their early relationship followed them to the predominantly white, upstate New York suburb where they moved to raise their only daughter. There, Elizabeth grew up with the trappings of a typical American childhood and adolescence. Yet even though she felt almost no connection to her mother's distant home, she also felt out of place among her peers. 

Decades later, Elizabeth comes to recognize the shame and self-loathing that haunt both her and her mother, and attempts a form of reconciliation, not only to come to terms with the embattled dynamics of her family but also to reckon with the injustices that reverberate throughout the history of Okinawa and its people. Clear-eyed and profoundly humane, Speak, Okinawa is a startling accomplishment—a heartfelt exploration of identity, inheritance, forgiveness, and what it means to be an American.

"In Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina beautifully combs a lifetime of memory, love, loss, and the connections that bind us to one another. In exploring how one comes to be, Brina’s prose illuminates and dazzles—and we see, in the end, what was intangible made clear in her writing. Speak, Okinawa is indelible, and Brina’s words are unforgettable.” —Bryan Washington, author of Memorial

“Speak, Okinawa
is the book I’ve needed my entire life. Elizabeth Miki Brina plumbs the depths of mixed-race girlhood, parental love and harm, and the daily, intimate aches of growing up between cultures. This is a book that gives feelings—however fleeting—clear form. I urge everyone to read it.” Jessica J. Lee, author of Two Trees Make a Forest, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize

Speak, Okinawa is a virtuosic and unflinching search for clarity.” —Poets & Writers

Speak, Okinawa is the rarest of books: as expansive as a history, propulsive as a novel, and intimate as a confession. It reads like a great consciousness springing to life. This book is more than an eye-popping debut, more than the introduction of a hugely talented writer. It is a time machine, a love letter, a revelation, a triumph. We are lucky to have it.” —M.O. Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away and The Big Door Prize

"Searingly candid. . . . Poignant. . . . Powerful.” —The New Yorker

“In America, we rarely inherit language for grappling with the fraught legacies of family and identity, memory and erasure, empire and occupation. But in Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina bravely charts a path toward self-recognition and reconciliation, with prose so powerful and pristine it often left me hovering at the edge of tears. This is a bracing, luminous debut that will long be remembered, and long turned to for inspiration.” —Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River

“Brina recounts, with piercing candidness and clarity, the almost claustrophobic world of an only child and her parents. . . . The memoir is also a portrait of the devastating effects of imperialism and racism on a person’s identity, self-worth, and relationships—and offers a perspective on how a person can combat these legacies.” —The Washington Post

“Brina captivates in her stunning and intimate debut memoir. . . . This nuanced tale goes both wide and deep, and is as moving as it is ambitious. Memoir lovers will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly

“Deeply human. . . . A forthright and tunneling inquiry into how the author came to understand the many inherited layers of herself and her racial identity. . . . Artfully concerned with the DNA-altering effects of trauma and the almost unfathomable power of language, Brina’s work opens a window on a lifelong search for peace, and the life-giving work of listening.” —Booklist (starred review)

“A masterful debut. . . . A can’t-miss memoir that will stay with readers after they finish the last page.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“I was completely transported by this memoir. At once a reckoning with cultural and personal identity, a revealing journey into one family’s experience, and an important examination of a beloved, too-often overlooked island and its people, Speak, Okinawa is a phenomenal piece of work. I can’t wait for this moving story to be shared with the world.” —Sarah Bird, author of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“A guilty and ultimately redemptive love letter to a mother. This book is medicine in its anguished honesty, countering the poison of internalized racism.” —Jay Griffiths, author of A Country Called Childhood

“A hauntingly beautiful memoir about family and identity.” —NPR, Here & Now

“Masterful. . . . Brina’s writing is crisp, captivating, and profound. She is vulnerable, raw, and relatable, and her stories will no doubt cause readers to reflect on their relationships with their own parents. As educational as it is entertaining, Speak, Okinawa is well worth the read.” —The Associated Press

“A gorgeous literary memoir of inner exploration and the search for identity.” —Good Morning America

“With searing honesty, Brina accomplishes the task of any great memoir: to make the singular speak for many. . . . Speak, Okinawa is a comfort to anyone who has felt foreign in their own skin, family, or society. . . . Brina’s writing shines.” —The Japan Times

“Brilliant.” —The Times-Picayune

“Brave.” —Ploughshares

“This is a memoir about daughterhood, home and homelands. It will make you want to call your parents. This book will teach you history and may well hurt your heart.” —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Starling Days

“Elizabeth Miki Brina captures the complicated reality of being a mixed-race Asian woman in a way I’ve rarely encountered before. With searing clarity, she excavates a family story shrouded in silence that spans across generations. Her mode of storytelling is tender, precise, and hypnotic.” —Nina Mingya Powles, author of Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai

“The history of Okinawa, told in the first-person plural, is jarring in the most eye-opening way.” —BookPage (starred review)

“A stupendous book. . . . Gorgeous. . . . Elizabeth Miki Brina claims her voice with resounding clarity. . . . The knowledge she reveals here—about herself, her complex heritage, her history—proves breathtaking. . . . Moving fluidly between intimate memories and documented history, Brina creates a multi-layered literary gift.” —Shelf Awareness

“A compelling memoir. . . . In clear, unfettered prose Brina rediscovers the history and culture of Okinawa. . . . Speak, Okinawa sheds light in the dark, unspoken corners of biracial identity, the chasms of misunderstanding in America today—and the wider western world too.” —Spectator

“In Speak, Okinawa we become immersed in the experience of Okinawa as a dual colony and understand Brina’s memories exist in that diasporic context. And as we do, we see and feel the way trauma crosses generations. . . . This book mattered to me in ways I can’t articulate in this review. I really, really don’t know what else to say. And I feel a kind of unspeakable shame that I don’t. The stories mattered. The history mattered. The words mattered.” —The International Examiner
© Thad Lee
ELIZABETH MIKI BRINA is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Bread Loaf Scholarship and a New York State Summer Writers Institute Scholarship. She currently lives and teaches in New Orleans. View titles by Elizabeth Miki Brina

I
WORSE THAN THE DOG
 

I asked my dad why all the great stories were sad ones. “Most good stories are mysteries,” he said. “The author is like a detective trying to get to the bottom of some truth, and happiness is a mystery that can come apart in your hands when you try to unravel it. Sadness, on the other hand, is infinitely more resilient. Scrutiny only adds to its depths and weight.”
—Bliss Broyard, “My Father’s Daughter”
 

My first memory: a dog bites me, on the arm, not hard, but just enough to jar me into consciousness. His name is Shiro, which means “white” or “castle” or “generation” in Japanese, depending on how it is written. Shiro has long white hair, blue eyes, and a grayish-pink nose. I am three years old and he is just above my height, but I can still look him in the eyes. I believe we understand each other, our arrangement. I believe, at age three, I’ve earned his subservience. He carries himself proudly. Majes­tic, like a horse.
 
So one day, when no one else is around, in the backyard, beside the cinderblock fence, as he lowers his head to drink from a shiny porcelain bowl of water, I try to mount him. He growls and bites me. He doesn’t frighten me. He embarrasses me, shames me. And as a small child, an only child, accustomed to endless doting, I wouldn’t tolerate these strange emotions. I cry and run to my mother. I don’t tell her why I’m crying. I’m afraid that if I tell her she’ll scold me worse than the dog did.
 
Shiro is not to be ridden like a horse.
 
 
Shiro was my obaasan’s dog. Obaa, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, found Shiro when he was still a puppy, eyes closed, curled up into a ball, quivering on a pile of garbage.
 
Often at night, Obaa pushed a cart through the streets of Kadena, a town located on the island of Okinawa, where my mother was born and raised, where I lived for six months when I was three years old. Often at night, when the air thinned and cooled, when the sounds of jets, helicopters, and gunfire com­ing from the nearby military bases quieted, Obaa pushed a cart through the streets and rummaged through trash heaps, search­ing for cans and bottles to sell, scraps of wood and metal to reuse. She lived in a house with a rusted tin roof, a rusted tin gate, a floor raised from the mud by cinder blocks, with a single room for cooking, eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing cards, a back­yard for bathing and growing sweet potatoes, which she ate for every meal. She lived almost all her life in this house, the house where my mother grew up, the house my grandfather built after their previous house was destroyed during the battle.
 
 
The Battle of Okinawa. That is how most of us have heard of Okinawa. But as a battle fought and won, and quickly disre­garded. Not as a battle on which our entire contemporary history depends, from which we are still recovering.
 
It began in April of 1945 and lasted eighty-two days. In Japa­nese, the battle is referred to as “tetsu no ame.” In English, the phrase means “rain of steel.” The Okinawans simply refer to it as Okinawa no Sensho, “Okinawan War.” Although a conquered nation for many centuries—first as a tributary of China, then as a colony of Japan—Okinawa had never known such carnage. For eighty-two days, thousands of planes dropped hundreds of thousands of bombs on the island, crushing and burning count­less creatures, plants, houses, and buildings. For eighty-two days, hundreds of thousands of troops invaded the island, wield­ing tanks and guns, throwing grenades, and shooting into hid­ing places. One hundred forty thousand Okinawans, a third of the population, were killed. That does not account for all those who died of injury, illness, starvation after the battle. That does not account for all those who were forced to commit suicide. Of those killed, some were conscripted soldiers called Boeitai, boys as young as twelve, ordered to fight in the front lines. Some were nurses or members of relief teams called Giyutai, girls as young as fourteen, ordered to cook and tend to the wounded. The rest were civilians. One hundred twenty thousand civilians. Who died in a war they didn’t choose, sacrificed to protect Japan, the precious mainland. Many Okinawans believe that those who died had died in vain. Or, rather, what they refer to as “a dog’s death,” inujini.
 
When news spread that Okinawa would soon be attacked, Obaa was living by herself with her four children, my mother’s older brother and older three sisters. My grandfather, conscripted four years earlier, was somewhere in Korea, being held prisoner. When the sirens blared, days before the troops landed, before the ships could be seen from shore, Obaa and her four children—her son, age four, and her three daughters, ages three, five, and seven—grabbed sacks of potatoes they had been gathering and storing for months. They hid in caves while the ground shook with each explosion, while their island, their home, crumbled and turned to ash. They fled from cave to cave, while their sacks emptied, while their clothes loosened and unraveled from their shrinking bodies. For two years after the war, they wandered from camp to camp, slept in tents or under tarps. They bathed in the ocean. They ate what they could scavenge. They collected rain and drew from low muddy wells for drinking. When my grandfather returned from Korea, he was a different person. He returned, but he was gone.
 
Somehow Obaa kept herself and her four children alive and unharmed through one of the most horrific battles in history. A story I wish she could have told me.
 
Yet these memories are impossible to forget, regardless of whether we actually lived through them. I believe they stay in our bodies. As sickness, as addiction, as poor posture or a tendency toward apology, as a deepened capacity for sadness or anger. As determination to survive, a relentless tempered optimism. I believe they are inherited, passed on to us like brown eyes or the shape of a nose.
 
 
I had not learned this history, my mother’s history, my his­tory, until I was thirty-four years old. Which is to say that I grew up not knowing my mother or myself.
 
 
Three years after the war, my mother was born. She was born into poverty and chaos. She was born into a family, an entire peo­ple, stunned by violence and grief. When my mother was born, Okinawa was still considered an “enemy territory.” This meant that the occupying U.S. military was under no obligation to restore the battered landscape, and Okinawa was still a vast ruin of decay and rubble. This meant that the occupying U.S. military guarded and patrolled the wreckage of an island, and Okinawans relied on bare subsistence rations of bread and milk, cans of red chili, popcorn, and candy. Some of the troops gave the prettiest girls bright new clothes to wear and called them “honeys.” Some of the troops broke into homes, robbed and raped Okinawans inside homes, because there were no laws against it, no laws at all.
 
In 1952, three years after my mother was born, around the age she would have formed her first memory, Japan officially relinquished rule of Okinawa to the United States. My mother witnessed the U.S. military devouring the island, constructing immense complexes of bases. She witnessed forests and fields, wetlands and beaches becoming concrete. She witnessed farm­ers and fishermen, carpenters and potters, cooks and shopkeep­ers becoming mere labor. Her brothers were hired to help build the bases. Her sisters were hired to serve food in the cafeterias. Obaa cleaned barracks. My grandfather also cleaned barracks, but mostly he just stayed in bed, too sick with grief, humiliation, and alcoholism to do much of anything else.
 
For many years after the war, in order to supplement her income, Obaa cooked breakfast and lunch for a few of her neigh­bors; a couple of them were orphans, older than her youngest children, old enough to work, but still needing someone to care for them. She cooked on a portable gas stove while they drank tea and played cards in the same room. They paid her one dollar to sit on her floor and eat food she prepared. Not much, just potato and broth.
 
Not long after her own children moved out and moved away, after my grandfather gambled and drank himself to death, Obaa found Shiro on a pile of garbage and brought him to her home. She held him like a baby and fed him with a bottle. Then he grew older and bigger, and they would sit together at the same table, which was already low to the floor, perfect for a dog, and share from the same bowl. One piece of potato for her, one piece for him. She would slurp some broth and give the rest to him. Back and forth. For every meal.
 
Shiro trotted beside her as Obaa pushed a cart through the streets.
 
Shiro was not to be ridden like a horse.
 
My first memory of Shiro biting me is all I remember of the time I lived in Okinawa. There are many photographs of my aunts and uncles holding me and smiling, my cousins holding me and smiling, Obaa carrying me on her back and smiling. We are not just posing for photographs. We are smiling because we are happy. I am a small child and I don’t know what sadness is yet, and therefore I make everyone happy.
 
There is a photograph of me at a beach, lying on my stomach on the sand, wearing a red-and-white polka-dotted swimsuit and sunglasses much too large for my face. I am laughing, probably because the person behind the camera is laughing.
 
There is a photograph of me in the park, standing on a pair of giant bronze statue boots, each boot bigger than my whole body, wearing braids and bow-shaped barrettes in my hair, arms crossed and brow furrowed, trying to look tough, probably because the person behind the camera is showing me how to look tough and I am mimicking her. We are having fun, pretending and playing together, because I am happy and everyone loves to play with me.
 
But I do not remember any of these moments. They are just photographs my mother had taken and framed, and hung on walls or put on shelves around the house. They do not belong to my life. They belong to hers.
 
What I do remember is walking through Newark Airport. I am walking with my mother, staying very close to her, holding her hand. A man walks beside us. He smiles a lot and wants to hold my hand, too, but I won’t let him. I won’t let him because I don’t know him. I don’t remember him because my first memory is of Shiro biting me. My mother tells me the man is my father. She tells me that he stayed behind, here, where we are now, in the United States. She tells me that he was traveling, looking for a better job and a better place for us to live. That is why we had to live with my aunt on Okinawa for six months. That is why we have returned. Because the man is my father and her husband. We belong with him. She says “Otosan . . . Otosan . . . Anata no otosan.” Father . . . Father . . . Your father. She tells me in Japanese, because back then I could understand and speak Japanese. I hold my mother’s hand tighter, hiding from him behind her.
 
And for a long time, that is the closest I ever felt to my mother. When I was still in her world.
 
 
What my mother and I share now is an understanding that precedes words. It is an understanding that comes from being the same body, being fed, bathed, clothed, held in her arms every day, loved every day, then becoming separate, growing apart, then remembering how much that hurt, remembering and being grateful for the distance we traversed, the distance we were able to recover. It is an understanding that comes from forgiveness.
 
My mother and I communicate through layered small-talk, subtexted chitchat, a shorthand that took years and years to develop, and satisfies our desire to be close.
 
But will that ever compensate for the years and years of silence, for the time we missed, the time I squandered?

“A hauntingly beautiful memoir about family and identity.” —NPR, Here & Now

“Masterful . . . Brina’s writing is crisp, captivating, and profound. She is vulnerable, raw, and relatable, and her stories will no doubt cause readers to reflect on their relationships with their own parents. As educational as it is entertaining, Speak, Okinawa is well worth the read.” The Associated Press

“A gorgeous literary memoir of inner exploration and the search for identity.” Good Morning America

"In Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina beautifully combs a lifetime of memory, love, loss, and the connections that bind us to one another. In exploring how one comes to be, Brina’s prose illuminates and dazzles—and we see, in the end, what was intangible made clear in her writing. Speak, Okinawa is indelible, and Brina’s words are unforgettable.” —Bryan Washington, author of Memorial

Speak, Okinawa
is the book I’ve needed my entire life. Elizabeth Miki Brina plumbs the depths of mixed-race girlhood, parental love and harm, and the daily, intimate aches of growing up between cultures. This is a book that gives feelings—however fleeting—clear form. I urge everyone to read it.” Jessica J. Lee, author of Two Trees Make a Forest, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize

Speak, Okinawa is a virtuosic and unflinching search for clarity.” Poets & Writers

"Speak, Okinawa is the rarest of books: as expansive as a history, propulsive as a novel, and intimate as a confession. It reads like a great consciousness springing to life. This book is more than an eye-popping debut, more than the introduction of a hugely talented writer. It is a time machine, a love letter, a revelation, a triumph. We are lucky to have it.” —M.O. Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away and The Big Door Prize

"Searingly candid . . . Poignant . . . Powerful.” The New Yorker

"In America, we rarely inherit language for grappling with the fraught legacies of family and identity, memory and erasure, empire and occupation. But in Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina bravely charts a path toward self-recognition and reconciliation, with prose so powerful and pristine it often left me hovering at the edge of tears. This is a bracing, luminous debut that will long be remembered, and long turned to for inspiration.” —Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River

“Brina recounts, with piercing candidness and clarity, the almost claustrophobic world of an only child and her parents . . . The memoir is also a portrait of the devastating effects of imperialism and racism on a person’s identity, self-worth, and relationships—and offers a perspective on how a person can combat these legacies.” The Washington Post

“Brina captivates in her stunning and intimate debut memoir . . . This nuanced tale goes both wide and deep, and is as moving as it is ambitious. Memoir lovers will be enthralled.” Publishers Weekly

“Deeply human . . . A forthright and tunneling inquiry into how the author came to understand the many inherited layers of herself and her racial identity . . . Artfully concerned with the DNA-altering effects of trauma and the almost unfathomable power of language, Brina’s work opens a window on a lifelong search for peace, and the life-giving work of listening.” Booklist (starred)

“A masterful debut . . . A can’t-miss memoir that will stay with readers after they finish the last page.” Library Journal (starred)

"I was completely transported by this memoir. At once a reckoning with cultural and personal identity, a revealing journey into one family’s experience, and an important examination of a beloved, too-often overlooked island and its people, Speak, Okinawa is a phenomenal piece of work. I can’t wait for this moving story to be shared with the world.” —Sarah Bird, author of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“A guilty and ultimately redemptive love letter to a mother. This book is medicine in its anguished honesty, countering the poison of internalised racism.” —Jay Griffiths, author of A Country Called Childhood

“With searing honesty, Brina accomplishes the task of any great memoir: to make the singular speak for many . . . Speak, Okinawa is a comfort to anyone who has felt foreign in their own skin, family, or society . . . Brina’s writing shines.” The Japan Times

“Brilliant.” The Times-Picayune

“Brave.” Ploughshares

“This is a memoir about daughterhood, home and homelands. It will make you want to call your parents. This book will teach you history and may well hurt your heart.” —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Starling Days

“Elizabeth Miki Brina captures the complicated reality of being a mixed-race Asian woman in a way I’ve rarely encountered before. With searing clarity, she excavates a family story shrouded in silence that spans across generations. Her mode of storytelling is tender, precise, and hypnotic.” —Nina Mingya Powles, author of Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai

“The history of Okinawa, told in the first-person plural, is jarring in the most eye-opening way.” BookPage (starred)

“A stupendous book . . . Gorgeous . . . Elizabeth Miki Brina claims her voice with resounding clarity . . . The knowledge she reveals here—about herself, her complex heritage, her history—proves breathtaking . . . Moving fluidly between intimate memories and documented history, Brina creates a multi-layered literary gift.” Shelf Awareness

“A compelling memoir . . . In clear, unfettered prose Brina rediscovers the history and culture of Okinawa . . . Speak, Okinawa sheds light in the dark, unspoken corners of biracial identity, the chasms of misunderstanding in America today—and the wider western world too.” Spectator

“In Speak, Okinawa we become immersed in the experience of Okinawa as a dual colony and understand Brina’s memories exist in that diasporic context. And as we do, we see and feel the way trauma crosses generations . . . This book mattered to me in ways I can’t articulate in this review. I really, really don’t know what else to say. And I feel a kind of unspeakable shame that I don’t. The stories mattered. The history mattered. The words mattered.” The International Examiner


About

Here is Elizbeth Miki Brina’s memoir about her journey to understanding her complicated parents—her mother an Okinawan war bride, her father a Vietnam veteran—and her own, fraught cultural heritage.

Elizabeth’s mother was working as a nightclub hostess on U.S.-occupied Okinawa when she met the American soldier who would become her husband. The language barrier and power imbalance that defined their early relationship followed them to the predominantly white, upstate New York suburb where they moved to raise their only daughter. There, Elizabeth grew up with the trappings of a typical American childhood and adolescence. Yet even though she felt almost no connection to her mother's distant home, she also felt out of place among her peers. 

Decades later, Elizabeth comes to recognize the shame and self-loathing that haunt both her and her mother, and attempts a form of reconciliation, not only to come to terms with the embattled dynamics of her family but also to reckon with the injustices that reverberate throughout the history of Okinawa and its people. Clear-eyed and profoundly humane, Speak, Okinawa is a startling accomplishment—a heartfelt exploration of identity, inheritance, forgiveness, and what it means to be an American.

"In Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina beautifully combs a lifetime of memory, love, loss, and the connections that bind us to one another. In exploring how one comes to be, Brina’s prose illuminates and dazzles—and we see, in the end, what was intangible made clear in her writing. Speak, Okinawa is indelible, and Brina’s words are unforgettable.” —Bryan Washington, author of Memorial

“Speak, Okinawa
is the book I’ve needed my entire life. Elizabeth Miki Brina plumbs the depths of mixed-race girlhood, parental love and harm, and the daily, intimate aches of growing up between cultures. This is a book that gives feelings—however fleeting—clear form. I urge everyone to read it.” Jessica J. Lee, author of Two Trees Make a Forest, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize

Speak, Okinawa is a virtuosic and unflinching search for clarity.” —Poets & Writers

Speak, Okinawa is the rarest of books: as expansive as a history, propulsive as a novel, and intimate as a confession. It reads like a great consciousness springing to life. This book is more than an eye-popping debut, more than the introduction of a hugely talented writer. It is a time machine, a love letter, a revelation, a triumph. We are lucky to have it.” —M.O. Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away and The Big Door Prize

"Searingly candid. . . . Poignant. . . . Powerful.” —The New Yorker

“In America, we rarely inherit language for grappling with the fraught legacies of family and identity, memory and erasure, empire and occupation. But in Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina bravely charts a path toward self-recognition and reconciliation, with prose so powerful and pristine it often left me hovering at the edge of tears. This is a bracing, luminous debut that will long be remembered, and long turned to for inspiration.” —Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River

“Brina recounts, with piercing candidness and clarity, the almost claustrophobic world of an only child and her parents. . . . The memoir is also a portrait of the devastating effects of imperialism and racism on a person’s identity, self-worth, and relationships—and offers a perspective on how a person can combat these legacies.” —The Washington Post

“Brina captivates in her stunning and intimate debut memoir. . . . This nuanced tale goes both wide and deep, and is as moving as it is ambitious. Memoir lovers will be enthralled.” —Publishers Weekly

“Deeply human. . . . A forthright and tunneling inquiry into how the author came to understand the many inherited layers of herself and her racial identity. . . . Artfully concerned with the DNA-altering effects of trauma and the almost unfathomable power of language, Brina’s work opens a window on a lifelong search for peace, and the life-giving work of listening.” —Booklist (starred review)

“A masterful debut. . . . A can’t-miss memoir that will stay with readers after they finish the last page.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“I was completely transported by this memoir. At once a reckoning with cultural and personal identity, a revealing journey into one family’s experience, and an important examination of a beloved, too-often overlooked island and its people, Speak, Okinawa is a phenomenal piece of work. I can’t wait for this moving story to be shared with the world.” —Sarah Bird, author of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“A guilty and ultimately redemptive love letter to a mother. This book is medicine in its anguished honesty, countering the poison of internalized racism.” —Jay Griffiths, author of A Country Called Childhood

“A hauntingly beautiful memoir about family and identity.” —NPR, Here & Now

“Masterful. . . . Brina’s writing is crisp, captivating, and profound. She is vulnerable, raw, and relatable, and her stories will no doubt cause readers to reflect on their relationships with their own parents. As educational as it is entertaining, Speak, Okinawa is well worth the read.” —The Associated Press

“A gorgeous literary memoir of inner exploration and the search for identity.” —Good Morning America

“With searing honesty, Brina accomplishes the task of any great memoir: to make the singular speak for many. . . . Speak, Okinawa is a comfort to anyone who has felt foreign in their own skin, family, or society. . . . Brina’s writing shines.” —The Japan Times

“Brilliant.” —The Times-Picayune

“Brave.” —Ploughshares

“This is a memoir about daughterhood, home and homelands. It will make you want to call your parents. This book will teach you history and may well hurt your heart.” —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Starling Days

“Elizabeth Miki Brina captures the complicated reality of being a mixed-race Asian woman in a way I’ve rarely encountered before. With searing clarity, she excavates a family story shrouded in silence that spans across generations. Her mode of storytelling is tender, precise, and hypnotic.” —Nina Mingya Powles, author of Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai

“The history of Okinawa, told in the first-person plural, is jarring in the most eye-opening way.” —BookPage (starred review)

“A stupendous book. . . . Gorgeous. . . . Elizabeth Miki Brina claims her voice with resounding clarity. . . . The knowledge she reveals here—about herself, her complex heritage, her history—proves breathtaking. . . . Moving fluidly between intimate memories and documented history, Brina creates a multi-layered literary gift.” —Shelf Awareness

“A compelling memoir. . . . In clear, unfettered prose Brina rediscovers the history and culture of Okinawa. . . . Speak, Okinawa sheds light in the dark, unspoken corners of biracial identity, the chasms of misunderstanding in America today—and the wider western world too.” —Spectator

“In Speak, Okinawa we become immersed in the experience of Okinawa as a dual colony and understand Brina’s memories exist in that diasporic context. And as we do, we see and feel the way trauma crosses generations. . . . This book mattered to me in ways I can’t articulate in this review. I really, really don’t know what else to say. And I feel a kind of unspeakable shame that I don’t. The stories mattered. The history mattered. The words mattered.” —The International Examiner

Author

© Thad Lee
ELIZABETH MIKI BRINA is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Bread Loaf Scholarship and a New York State Summer Writers Institute Scholarship. She currently lives and teaches in New Orleans. View titles by Elizabeth Miki Brina

Excerpt

I
WORSE THAN THE DOG
 

I asked my dad why all the great stories were sad ones. “Most good stories are mysteries,” he said. “The author is like a detective trying to get to the bottom of some truth, and happiness is a mystery that can come apart in your hands when you try to unravel it. Sadness, on the other hand, is infinitely more resilient. Scrutiny only adds to its depths and weight.”
—Bliss Broyard, “My Father’s Daughter”
 

My first memory: a dog bites me, on the arm, not hard, but just enough to jar me into consciousness. His name is Shiro, which means “white” or “castle” or “generation” in Japanese, depending on how it is written. Shiro has long white hair, blue eyes, and a grayish-pink nose. I am three years old and he is just above my height, but I can still look him in the eyes. I believe we understand each other, our arrangement. I believe, at age three, I’ve earned his subservience. He carries himself proudly. Majes­tic, like a horse.
 
So one day, when no one else is around, in the backyard, beside the cinderblock fence, as he lowers his head to drink from a shiny porcelain bowl of water, I try to mount him. He growls and bites me. He doesn’t frighten me. He embarrasses me, shames me. And as a small child, an only child, accustomed to endless doting, I wouldn’t tolerate these strange emotions. I cry and run to my mother. I don’t tell her why I’m crying. I’m afraid that if I tell her she’ll scold me worse than the dog did.
 
Shiro is not to be ridden like a horse.
 
 
Shiro was my obaasan’s dog. Obaa, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, found Shiro when he was still a puppy, eyes closed, curled up into a ball, quivering on a pile of garbage.
 
Often at night, Obaa pushed a cart through the streets of Kadena, a town located on the island of Okinawa, where my mother was born and raised, where I lived for six months when I was three years old. Often at night, when the air thinned and cooled, when the sounds of jets, helicopters, and gunfire com­ing from the nearby military bases quieted, Obaa pushed a cart through the streets and rummaged through trash heaps, search­ing for cans and bottles to sell, scraps of wood and metal to reuse. She lived in a house with a rusted tin roof, a rusted tin gate, a floor raised from the mud by cinder blocks, with a single room for cooking, eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing cards, a back­yard for bathing and growing sweet potatoes, which she ate for every meal. She lived almost all her life in this house, the house where my mother grew up, the house my grandfather built after their previous house was destroyed during the battle.
 
 
The Battle of Okinawa. That is how most of us have heard of Okinawa. But as a battle fought and won, and quickly disre­garded. Not as a battle on which our entire contemporary history depends, from which we are still recovering.
 
It began in April of 1945 and lasted eighty-two days. In Japa­nese, the battle is referred to as “tetsu no ame.” In English, the phrase means “rain of steel.” The Okinawans simply refer to it as Okinawa no Sensho, “Okinawan War.” Although a conquered nation for many centuries—first as a tributary of China, then as a colony of Japan—Okinawa had never known such carnage. For eighty-two days, thousands of planes dropped hundreds of thousands of bombs on the island, crushing and burning count­less creatures, plants, houses, and buildings. For eighty-two days, hundreds of thousands of troops invaded the island, wield­ing tanks and guns, throwing grenades, and shooting into hid­ing places. One hundred forty thousand Okinawans, a third of the population, were killed. That does not account for all those who died of injury, illness, starvation after the battle. That does not account for all those who were forced to commit suicide. Of those killed, some were conscripted soldiers called Boeitai, boys as young as twelve, ordered to fight in the front lines. Some were nurses or members of relief teams called Giyutai, girls as young as fourteen, ordered to cook and tend to the wounded. The rest were civilians. One hundred twenty thousand civilians. Who died in a war they didn’t choose, sacrificed to protect Japan, the precious mainland. Many Okinawans believe that those who died had died in vain. Or, rather, what they refer to as “a dog’s death,” inujini.
 
When news spread that Okinawa would soon be attacked, Obaa was living by herself with her four children, my mother’s older brother and older three sisters. My grandfather, conscripted four years earlier, was somewhere in Korea, being held prisoner. When the sirens blared, days before the troops landed, before the ships could be seen from shore, Obaa and her four children—her son, age four, and her three daughters, ages three, five, and seven—grabbed sacks of potatoes they had been gathering and storing for months. They hid in caves while the ground shook with each explosion, while their island, their home, crumbled and turned to ash. They fled from cave to cave, while their sacks emptied, while their clothes loosened and unraveled from their shrinking bodies. For two years after the war, they wandered from camp to camp, slept in tents or under tarps. They bathed in the ocean. They ate what they could scavenge. They collected rain and drew from low muddy wells for drinking. When my grandfather returned from Korea, he was a different person. He returned, but he was gone.
 
Somehow Obaa kept herself and her four children alive and unharmed through one of the most horrific battles in history. A story I wish she could have told me.
 
Yet these memories are impossible to forget, regardless of whether we actually lived through them. I believe they stay in our bodies. As sickness, as addiction, as poor posture or a tendency toward apology, as a deepened capacity for sadness or anger. As determination to survive, a relentless tempered optimism. I believe they are inherited, passed on to us like brown eyes or the shape of a nose.
 
 
I had not learned this history, my mother’s history, my his­tory, until I was thirty-four years old. Which is to say that I grew up not knowing my mother or myself.
 
 
Three years after the war, my mother was born. She was born into poverty and chaos. She was born into a family, an entire peo­ple, stunned by violence and grief. When my mother was born, Okinawa was still considered an “enemy territory.” This meant that the occupying U.S. military was under no obligation to restore the battered landscape, and Okinawa was still a vast ruin of decay and rubble. This meant that the occupying U.S. military guarded and patrolled the wreckage of an island, and Okinawans relied on bare subsistence rations of bread and milk, cans of red chili, popcorn, and candy. Some of the troops gave the prettiest girls bright new clothes to wear and called them “honeys.” Some of the troops broke into homes, robbed and raped Okinawans inside homes, because there were no laws against it, no laws at all.
 
In 1952, three years after my mother was born, around the age she would have formed her first memory, Japan officially relinquished rule of Okinawa to the United States. My mother witnessed the U.S. military devouring the island, constructing immense complexes of bases. She witnessed forests and fields, wetlands and beaches becoming concrete. She witnessed farm­ers and fishermen, carpenters and potters, cooks and shopkeep­ers becoming mere labor. Her brothers were hired to help build the bases. Her sisters were hired to serve food in the cafeterias. Obaa cleaned barracks. My grandfather also cleaned barracks, but mostly he just stayed in bed, too sick with grief, humiliation, and alcoholism to do much of anything else.
 
For many years after the war, in order to supplement her income, Obaa cooked breakfast and lunch for a few of her neigh­bors; a couple of them were orphans, older than her youngest children, old enough to work, but still needing someone to care for them. She cooked on a portable gas stove while they drank tea and played cards in the same room. They paid her one dollar to sit on her floor and eat food she prepared. Not much, just potato and broth.
 
Not long after her own children moved out and moved away, after my grandfather gambled and drank himself to death, Obaa found Shiro on a pile of garbage and brought him to her home. She held him like a baby and fed him with a bottle. Then he grew older and bigger, and they would sit together at the same table, which was already low to the floor, perfect for a dog, and share from the same bowl. One piece of potato for her, one piece for him. She would slurp some broth and give the rest to him. Back and forth. For every meal.
 
Shiro trotted beside her as Obaa pushed a cart through the streets.
 
Shiro was not to be ridden like a horse.
 
My first memory of Shiro biting me is all I remember of the time I lived in Okinawa. There are many photographs of my aunts and uncles holding me and smiling, my cousins holding me and smiling, Obaa carrying me on her back and smiling. We are not just posing for photographs. We are smiling because we are happy. I am a small child and I don’t know what sadness is yet, and therefore I make everyone happy.
 
There is a photograph of me at a beach, lying on my stomach on the sand, wearing a red-and-white polka-dotted swimsuit and sunglasses much too large for my face. I am laughing, probably because the person behind the camera is laughing.
 
There is a photograph of me in the park, standing on a pair of giant bronze statue boots, each boot bigger than my whole body, wearing braids and bow-shaped barrettes in my hair, arms crossed and brow furrowed, trying to look tough, probably because the person behind the camera is showing me how to look tough and I am mimicking her. We are having fun, pretending and playing together, because I am happy and everyone loves to play with me.
 
But I do not remember any of these moments. They are just photographs my mother had taken and framed, and hung on walls or put on shelves around the house. They do not belong to my life. They belong to hers.
 
What I do remember is walking through Newark Airport. I am walking with my mother, staying very close to her, holding her hand. A man walks beside us. He smiles a lot and wants to hold my hand, too, but I won’t let him. I won’t let him because I don’t know him. I don’t remember him because my first memory is of Shiro biting me. My mother tells me the man is my father. She tells me that he stayed behind, here, where we are now, in the United States. She tells me that he was traveling, looking for a better job and a better place for us to live. That is why we had to live with my aunt on Okinawa for six months. That is why we have returned. Because the man is my father and her husband. We belong with him. She says “Otosan . . . Otosan . . . Anata no otosan.” Father . . . Father . . . Your father. She tells me in Japanese, because back then I could understand and speak Japanese. I hold my mother’s hand tighter, hiding from him behind her.
 
And for a long time, that is the closest I ever felt to my mother. When I was still in her world.
 
 
What my mother and I share now is an understanding that precedes words. It is an understanding that comes from being the same body, being fed, bathed, clothed, held in her arms every day, loved every day, then becoming separate, growing apart, then remembering how much that hurt, remembering and being grateful for the distance we traversed, the distance we were able to recover. It is an understanding that comes from forgiveness.
 
My mother and I communicate through layered small-talk, subtexted chitchat, a shorthand that took years and years to develop, and satisfies our desire to be close.
 
But will that ever compensate for the years and years of silence, for the time we missed, the time I squandered?

Praise

“A hauntingly beautiful memoir about family and identity.” —NPR, Here & Now

“Masterful . . . Brina’s writing is crisp, captivating, and profound. She is vulnerable, raw, and relatable, and her stories will no doubt cause readers to reflect on their relationships with their own parents. As educational as it is entertaining, Speak, Okinawa is well worth the read.” The Associated Press

“A gorgeous literary memoir of inner exploration and the search for identity.” Good Morning America

"In Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina beautifully combs a lifetime of memory, love, loss, and the connections that bind us to one another. In exploring how one comes to be, Brina’s prose illuminates and dazzles—and we see, in the end, what was intangible made clear in her writing. Speak, Okinawa is indelible, and Brina’s words are unforgettable.” —Bryan Washington, author of Memorial

Speak, Okinawa
is the book I’ve needed my entire life. Elizabeth Miki Brina plumbs the depths of mixed-race girlhood, parental love and harm, and the daily, intimate aches of growing up between cultures. This is a book that gives feelings—however fleeting—clear form. I urge everyone to read it.” Jessica J. Lee, author of Two Trees Make a Forest, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize

Speak, Okinawa is a virtuosic and unflinching search for clarity.” Poets & Writers

"Speak, Okinawa is the rarest of books: as expansive as a history, propulsive as a novel, and intimate as a confession. It reads like a great consciousness springing to life. This book is more than an eye-popping debut, more than the introduction of a hugely talented writer. It is a time machine, a love letter, a revelation, a triumph. We are lucky to have it.” —M.O. Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away and The Big Door Prize

"Searingly candid . . . Poignant . . . Powerful.” The New Yorker

"In America, we rarely inherit language for grappling with the fraught legacies of family and identity, memory and erasure, empire and occupation. But in Speak, Okinawa, Elizabeth Miki Brina bravely charts a path toward self-recognition and reconciliation, with prose so powerful and pristine it often left me hovering at the edge of tears. This is a bracing, luminous debut that will long be remembered, and long turned to for inspiration.” —Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River

“Brina recounts, with piercing candidness and clarity, the almost claustrophobic world of an only child and her parents . . . The memoir is also a portrait of the devastating effects of imperialism and racism on a person’s identity, self-worth, and relationships—and offers a perspective on how a person can combat these legacies.” The Washington Post

“Brina captivates in her stunning and intimate debut memoir . . . This nuanced tale goes both wide and deep, and is as moving as it is ambitious. Memoir lovers will be enthralled.” Publishers Weekly

“Deeply human . . . A forthright and tunneling inquiry into how the author came to understand the many inherited layers of herself and her racial identity . . . Artfully concerned with the DNA-altering effects of trauma and the almost unfathomable power of language, Brina’s work opens a window on a lifelong search for peace, and the life-giving work of listening.” Booklist (starred)

“A masterful debut . . . A can’t-miss memoir that will stay with readers after they finish the last page.” Library Journal (starred)

"I was completely transported by this memoir. At once a reckoning with cultural and personal identity, a revealing journey into one family’s experience, and an important examination of a beloved, too-often overlooked island and its people, Speak, Okinawa is a phenomenal piece of work. I can’t wait for this moving story to be shared with the world.” —Sarah Bird, author of Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“A guilty and ultimately redemptive love letter to a mother. This book is medicine in its anguished honesty, countering the poison of internalised racism.” —Jay Griffiths, author of A Country Called Childhood

“With searing honesty, Brina accomplishes the task of any great memoir: to make the singular speak for many . . . Speak, Okinawa is a comfort to anyone who has felt foreign in their own skin, family, or society . . . Brina’s writing shines.” The Japan Times

“Brilliant.” The Times-Picayune

“Brave.” Ploughshares

“This is a memoir about daughterhood, home and homelands. It will make you want to call your parents. This book will teach you history and may well hurt your heart.” —Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Starling Days

“Elizabeth Miki Brina captures the complicated reality of being a mixed-race Asian woman in a way I’ve rarely encountered before. With searing clarity, she excavates a family story shrouded in silence that spans across generations. Her mode of storytelling is tender, precise, and hypnotic.” —Nina Mingya Powles, author of Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai

“The history of Okinawa, told in the first-person plural, is jarring in the most eye-opening way.” BookPage (starred)

“A stupendous book . . . Gorgeous . . . Elizabeth Miki Brina claims her voice with resounding clarity . . . The knowledge she reveals here—about herself, her complex heritage, her history—proves breathtaking . . . Moving fluidly between intimate memories and documented history, Brina creates a multi-layered literary gift.” Shelf Awareness

“A compelling memoir . . . In clear, unfettered prose Brina rediscovers the history and culture of Okinawa . . . Speak, Okinawa sheds light in the dark, unspoken corners of biracial identity, the chasms of misunderstanding in America today—and the wider western world too.” Spectator

“In Speak, Okinawa we become immersed in the experience of Okinawa as a dual colony and understand Brina’s memories exist in that diasporic context. And as we do, we see and feel the way trauma crosses generations . . . This book mattered to me in ways I can’t articulate in this review. I really, really don’t know what else to say. And I feel a kind of unspeakable shame that I don’t. The stories mattered. The history mattered. The words mattered.” The International Examiner


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