Elizabeth Miki Brina, SPEAK, OKINAWA: A MEMOIR

Elizabeth Miki Brina, SPEAK, OKINAWA: A MEMOIR

“This is a book that I needed to write my whole life. It’s been building up inside of me for a long time.” Elizabeth Miki Brina talks with Zibby about how writing helped her understand both her history and herself. She discusses inherited traumas and explains the important role writing played in her healing process.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elizabeth Miki Brina: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Your book, Speak, Okinawa, is beautiful. From the first sentence, you are immediately immersed into your story, your relationship with your mom, the complications, the history. I learned so much more than I ever knew about Okinawa. Thank you for that. That was also great. The way you wove it in was so effortless. It’s like you were teaching but sharing. It’s been great. Bravo to you for this book.

Elizabeth: Thank you so much. Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Zibby: For listeners who don’t know what it’s about, can you share a little bit about this memoir? What inspired you to write a memoir to begin with?

Elizabeth: The book is essentially about, as you were saying, repairing my relationship to my mother. For most of my life, I felt very estranged from her. I rejected her. That had everything to do with me not knowing who she was or where she came from or the history of the place where she grew up and also not wanting to know. My mother grew up in Okinawa, but I grew up in a very white, very homogenous suburb of Upstate New York. It was during the 1980s and ’90s, so not the most accepting, woke decades of our era. I was ashamed of her for much of my life. The book, it tries to describe and explain this repairing process, my discovery of who she is and who I am while learning about how she met and married my father who was a soldier stationed on the island which was an occupied US territory at the time. These imperialistic origins embedded in the dynamics of my family influenced the way I related to her and the way I thought of myself.

Zibby: Your dad was living on the Upper East Side.

Elizabeth: Exactly.

Zibby: It’s completely different. Your mother’s family, there were nine of them living in a room together, six siblings and two parents in one room in extreme poverty, the way you depicted it. Then your dad waltzing into Loyola, you could not have paired two vastly different backgrounds.

Elizabeth: I know.

Zibby: Then when you talk about it in the book, it’s like, yeah, sometimes people meet and fall in love from totally different backgrounds, but do they mesh? You raised this really interesting question of, okay, then what happens? Then what happens in the next generation? Is it always so simple as just two people getting together? What about all the cultural and history and all of that?

Elizabeth: Exactly. For a long time, it was always presented to me as this very romantic love story kind of like a movie, but also simplified and romanticized. Figuring out where these thoughts and feelings come from, it comes from these clashes growing up. All the anxiety and the self-loathing and things like that, it comes from not being aware of the clash. It’s not always so simple. It’s not always easy.

Zibby: You write about it in such a factual way, like, and then the kids at school started calling me this and then that. There was a lot of racism directed your way. That was a lot to take. Tell me about the lingering effects of that. I know you said perhaps had you been a child right now, things would be quite different.

Elizabeth: I hope so. I really hope so.

Zibby: I hope so, yes. I hope so too. I like to believe that.

Elizabeth: I like to believe it too.

Zibby: Just that feeling of being other, being different, the one percent in your book references the one percent of non-white people in your community growing up. Tell me about the lingering effects of that hatred, not hatred, but just all those remarks and barbs and all of it. Just tell me about that.

Elizabeth: Gosh, the lingering effects.

Zibby: If there are any. I shouldn’t assume that there are any.

Elizabeth: There definitely are. I wrote a whole book about that. You’re right on point. It’s also, because the lingering effects are just so intertwined with everything, it’s hard to pinpoint. Like you said, I always felt very other, very outcasted. At first, in my twenties and early thirties, this outcasted-ness really hurt me. Teens, twenties, I never felt like I belonged. I could never find my niche. Writing this book had everything to do with that. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with not fitting in and just bouncing around from different groups, different places. I think that helped a lot in a lot of ways, helped me develop some empathy. Everyone, in some ways, feels that way, not belonging. I kind of have this soft spot for people who are lost and confused. In a lot of ways, it helped me, worked to my advantage.

Zibby: In Okinawa growing up, your mother and her family, you talk about some of the inherited trauma that had gone on and the difficulty of that. I just wanted to read this one quote. You were talking about stories you wish you could’ve heard. Then you said, “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 a sadness or anger, as determination to survive, a relentless, tempered optimism. I believe they are inherited, passed onto us like brown eyes or the shape of a nose.” That was beautiful, by the way. There’s so much talk about inherited trauma. Is it in our DNA somehow when things have happened before us? What do you make of this?

Elizabeth: I’m sure there’s science behind it. I don’t know anything about the actual physical, biological, what happens to your genes, but I’ve heard these things. Just through experience, the pain stays inside you. It has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just go away. My mom, she grew up after World War II. I think what a lot of people don’t know is just how completely devastating the Battle of Okinawa of. The whole island was destroyed. So many people died. My mother grew up three years after the battle ended, but it was still so present. How could she not absorb all of that grief and pain? Then when she was growing up, that’s when all the military bases came in, the American military bases. Children just absorb that even if they’re not cognitively thinking about it. I think same way about another generation removed from all that trauma. Because of what my mother went through and what she witnessed, this is the case for a lot of people, but she really had a problem with alcohol. That was a cause of a lot of strife growing up. Then when I grew up seeing her pain, I take that. Then I create my own and so on and so on. Obviously, I think that my life and my pain is not as awful as my mother’s, and hers probably not as awful as someone who had actually experienced the battle. It gets better, but it has to go somewhere. We have to work through it until it’s gone.

Zibby: Very true. When did you start writing?

Elizabeth: I think I started actually writing probably when I was twelve. I had just finished reading The Outsiders in eighth grade. That was it. I was like, I’m going to write this. I got kind of hooked.

Zibby: Then did you continue to write through — tell me about your whole writing journey up until now.

Elizabeth: I had always been writing. I’ve always tried to write. From a very early age, I was like, I want to be a writer. That’s what I want to be when I grow up. I started writing short stories, poems, screenplays. For a long time, I didn’t know there was such a thing as memoir. I didn’t know that this existed. All the stories that I wrote were about me. I called them short stories. I called them fiction, but they were clearly, this is my life. I definitely hid from myself a lot in the early writing. I never wanted to talk about my heritage. I never wanted to talk about my mother. Those things weren’t interesting. I was always trying to be very universal, so, white. Sometime after college, maybe it was the last years, I had this block. I had this incredible writer’s block. I could not write anything. Nothing would come out. It was devastating. It really took a toll on me. I scrutinized every sentence. I was like, no, that’s terrible. That’s bad. I can’t put this out into the world. I stopped for ten years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Elizabeth: I wrote maybe very randomly. I was a special education teacher in Oakland for five years. While I was doing that, I was like, I can do this. This could be who I am. It wasn’t. I am very bad at classroom management. Then the school closed down. It gave me this, what am I going to do now? The epiphany moment, what have you always wanted? I was like, writing. Let’s try to get back to that. I applied to graduate schools, MFA programs. Once I started getting very formal feedback, people were telling me what they found most moving, most interesting. It was always my mother, my complicated parents. I was like, what? No. We don’t want to talk about that. Eventually, I dived in

Zibby: What was it like reliving all of this and writing this book? How long it did take? When did you decide it was going to actually be a freestanding memoir in this form?

Elizabeth: Oh, gosh. I started writing it six years ago. This is a book that I needed to write my whole life. It’s been building up inside of me for a long time. Eventually, it had to come out. The most immediate catalyst was my mother’s baptism. My mother had recently joined the Rochester Japanese Christian Congregation. I had no idea what this church was. I just thought, okay, they’re probably Japanese and they’re Christian. I also was very condescending about it. Oh, it’s more colonial stuff, converting these Japanese people to Christianity. Then I went to her baptism. I realized that all the members of the church are — there are about fifty of them in the greater Rochester area. They were almost all women. All the women were around my mother’s age. They were all married to white American men who had served in the military. That was just like, whoa, what is this? That was the first time I realized that there are more people like my mother. I always thought that her marriage to my father was a strange coincidence, this romantic story. They meet at a bar, love at first sight. Then seeing all these women together, I was like, no, this is part of something bigger. This is a larger social phenomenon.

It started as an essay I was going to write just about the baptism. I was reading a lot of Joan Didion at the time. I was like, this is going to be literary journalism. I’m going to do all this research. Then it was me. I was like, I can’t believe I grew up not knowing any of this. I can’t believe I grew up not knowing my history. It got bigger and bigger and more and more personal because I was angry about it, how much this could’ve helped me understand myself and understand my mother. It was painful. Like you said, I had to relive a lot of moments that made me upset with myself. I think that the writing helped heal. When you write it down, you can hold it still. You can examine it. You can give it clarity and purpose and maybe even make it beautiful and like it was all worth it somehow. That part has been actually very healing for me. Also, this was how I got close to my mother. In writing it, I had to ask her all these questions about her life. I had to find out things I never knew about her before and find the real story, not the romanticized version. We talked. It became just so much easier to talk to her after that. Our conversations used to feel very strained and forced, but now it’s carried over. Now that we know each other, it’s just like, oh, you’re Mom. Hello. That’s probably been the most beneficial part of the book.

Zibby: I know you had said that one of the obstacles to getting to know your mom is that you spoke different native languages. While you spoke some Japanese as a child, pretty soon, how you thought and spoke and how she thought and spoke just didn’t connect. I know that that happens to so many families when people emigrate and you have different first languages, even, and an unnecessary barrier that puts up immediately between two people within a family.

Elizabeth: That, like I said in my book, is everything. My mother and I don’t speak the same language. Also, this power dynamic because my father and I do speak the same language, that was hard. It was also this us against her. It set up that dynamic, not intentionally, but how could it not? That was another thing too. Why didn’t I learn Japanese growing up? Why wasn’t that a priority? I think my father’s more responsible for that than my mother. I don’t think either of them thought how important that would be and how much that would strain my relationship.

Zibby: Tell me — oh, sorry, did I cut you off?

Elizabeth: I was just like, but the upside.

Zibby: Tell me the upside.

Elizabeth: We have so many more ways to communicate than words and languages. That’s one of the things that my mother and I have able to do, is just find our own rapport, a shorthand of phrases that mean so much more. That’s been beautiful, to kind of create our own language together.

Zibby: Has she read this book?

Elizabeth: She hasn’t.

Zibby: Tell me about selling this to Knopf and becoming a debut memoirist there, which is such a highly respected literary imprint, I should say not imprint, but firm. What was that like? Tell me about selling the book.

Elizabeth: Oh, my gosh, that was a total dream come true, very, very unexpected. I’m still so grateful. I have to just remind myself sometimes this is happening. When I get very stressed and bogged down, it’s like, no, that is enough, that right there. I think that’s very important. When I was writing this, I didn’t think about where it would end up. I was just thinking, this is a story I have to tell. I have to give it my all. I was really just thinking whoever would take it. Who will take this? Then I went to Bread Loaf. It’s a writers’ conference in Vermont. I submitted the first chapter to be workshopped. I had written that first chapter so many times that I couldn’t even see it anymore. I was like, is this any good? I had submitted it to so many places. It got rejected so many times. I was like, is they okay? Do I know what I’m doing? The fellow in the workshop named Francisco Cantú, who’s this book’s guardian angel, he’s amazing, he read it and loved it, which is so validating. Thank god. Someone recognizes this. Then he introduced me to my agent. My agent’s incredible, the book deal of my dreams. It took a really long time, and then it happened very fast. It seems to be a common experience.

Zibby: It’s so exciting. What are you doing now that this is coming out? Are you continuing to work? Do you have a day job? Are you writing full time?

Elizabeth: I’m writing part time. I’m working on some essays here and there. I write to understand myself, so I continuously am jotting down things. Also, this craziness, I need some sort of processing through it all, this crazy time that we’re living in. My routine, my schedule is, I am a part-time tutor at a community college. That keeps me grounded. I love it.

Zibby: I feel like that’s the best thing that applies to so many people. I write to understand myself. It’s so simple. Yet it’s so true. That is why, I think, so many people write. I know anytime I have an issue with anything, I’m like, if I could just sit down and put my fingers on the keys and give myself an hour, I will sort through it. There’s something about writing, at least I find and obviously you, for me, it’s so much better than talking. I can try to talk about feelings, but if I write about it, it’s magic.

Elizabeth: There’s something about finding the right words. No, wait, is that what I’m feeling? No, let me think about it. Then you can really understand it. This is exactly what I mean, whereas talking is just whatever comes to mind at first.

Zibby: Exactly. You can’t copy and paste and find the exact right metaphor. Yes, that’s true too. What is coming next for you?

Elizabeth: I’m trying not to look too far ahead because of the world, because of everything, so just one day at a time. Like I said, I’ve been writing a lot of essays or parts of essays. I have ideas. They’re all sort of peripherally about my parents because they’ll endlessly fascinate me and they’re also the most important people in my life. They’re in my life.

Zibby: Good source of material. Keep tapping that as long as you can.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Also, exploring and trying to resolve my own relationship issues. That was kind of a very loose thread in the book that I just finished. We’ll see where that takes me.

Zibby: I’m just launching now, an online publication for Medium. It’s called Moms Don’t Have Time to Write. If you want to write an essay, if you want to find a home, I’m sure you could anywhere, but we’re publishing lots of essays.

Elizabeth: Thank you. I will definitely check it out.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Elizabeth: I still sort of consider myself an aspiring author. It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. I could say what worked for me. It’s finding a story that you have to tell. It’s inside you. You can feel it growing. It has to come out. Finding the story that only you can tell, I think that we all have our own unique perspectives and contributions. What I did, what a lot of new writers do is maybe tend to focus on the stories they think that they should tell, what other people think is interesting and important. That doesn’t sustain you. That won’t keep you sitting in a chair writing. I always try to think about, what am I constantly worrying about? What am I constantly wondering about, obsessed about? What am I trying to figure out? That’s what drives me to get me to finish. I also try to write to myself as a reader. When I reread my own work, I think to myself, what do I want to know about? What comes next? What do I want to know next? What dark secret do I want myself to reveal? Also, what do I want to sound like? I reread my sentences over and over again and try to think, what would I be proud to say? In that way, I learn to sound more like me.

Zibby: You are truly a beautiful writer. I love your style. I just love it. It’s not overly flourishy. Yet it’s still literary. It teaches and inspires. It’s just very captivating. It makes you not want to stop reading what you’re writing, which I don’t say often, I have to say. I mean it, though. I just love what you write. I want to read anything else that you write going forward. I can’t wait to see what you do. This is just your debut. It’s always really exciting to come across someone super talented who’s just getting started. That makes me so excited.

Elizabeth: I appreciate that. Thank you so much. That means a lot.

Zibby: No problem. Congratulations on Speak, Okinawa. I’ll be following along your journey. I’m excited for you.

Elizabeth: Yay! Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Elizabeth: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

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