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Speak, Okinawa review – a struggle to unearth a denied self | Autobiography and memoir

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Most memoirs are about resolving an identity crisis of some kind. And this is an extreme one. Born to a mother from Okinawa and a father who was a US soldier, Elizabeth Miki Brina grows up in New Jersey and Fairport, New York, faintly aware of her history but unable to really assimilate it for years. As a child, she clings to her father, to Beverly Hills 90210, to Chuck E Cheese dinners, to Aerosmith cassette tapes; she cuts up her mother’s kimonos and, as soon as she is old enough, dyes her hair blond. She wants blue contact lenses but her parents draw the line at that. Even at the age of 18, when she starts to say the words “half-Japanese” out loud, she is not able to explain “what Okinawa is”, the place where her mother was born and raised.

As the author explains, the words “internalised racism” were not in anyone’s vocabulary at that time – and they certainly weren’t familiar to her parents, two people who were young and naive when they fell in love and spend the rest of their marriage just trying to do their best, with the kind of quietly disastrous consequences that secretly make up many ordinary family lives. With the benefit of hindsight and the beady eye of a ruthless biographer, Miki Brina’s life story becomes an extraordinarily compelling and involving account of what it means to grow up denying a part of yourself.

This is how a woman in her 40s comes to terms with her identity in a supposedly racially aware America. It’s a story written with pathos, humour, grace and a massive dose of cringe. Her father, with Elvis Presley looks, was a serviceman in Okinawa, the smallest and southernmost of Japan’s main islands and used as a base after Vietnam. Okinawa is the long-term subject of a tug of war between Japan and various other powers, still not entirely resolved. Miki Brina visits the island – and her grandparents – as a toddler, when she still speaks a few words of Japanese. But after that her mother never returns home again and the link is lost. For most of Miki Brina’s childhood, Okinawa is something that is never spoken of. It’s like it doesn’t exist.

As the years pass, her mother’s own sense of self begins to fade. This marriage was initially a fairytale: she, the waitress serving the Americans, he, the handsome foreigner. She was the exotic prize whisked away to the land of plenty. Of course, things go awry fast. America is loud, disappointing and harsh. The mother never really learns to speak English properly, the father speaks no Japanese and the daughter takes refuge in being as American as possible. Miki Brina, an only child, finds herself growing up with a strange sense of self-loathing combined with a feeling of being fiercely patriotic. She is confused when classmates and neighbours treat her as “other” and when teenage jocks seem to want to count her as a one-off trophy conquest. But she is so desperate to belong that she doesn’t question any of this, directing all the rejection inwardly and blaming herself.

The real skill here lies in the empathy the author has for her parents and for her younger self. Yes, her father is sometimes difficult and authoritarian, but he holds things together. Yes, her mother drinks too much (“We never uttered the word ‘alcoholic’”), but she does not try to leave and she loves her family as best she can. Yes, Miki Brina as a child was obnoxious and biased towards her father’s side of the story, but she didn’t know any better and couldn’t see things how they really were. This is ultimately a study in the intricate survival mechanisms we use to cope with what’s going on around us.

The family story is interwoven with the mind-bendingly unfortunate history of Okinawa, which is recounted here in fascinating, vivid historical asides. As Miki Brina ages, she comes to identify more strongly with her mother’s roots and strives to find the kind of peace of mind that comes with accepting that you can be two things at the same time. Her writing is so warm and honest that you find yourself rooting for her and her parents, thrilled at her “adult learner” conversations with her mother in stilted Japanese, willing them all to find a way to understand one another. This is quite simply a brilliantly original and affecting memoir.

Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina is published by Granta (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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