Both Trauma and Sin: Elizabeth Miki Brina’s Speak, Okinawa

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I am mixed race, the daughter of a Japanese American woman and a German man. I look more Japanese than I do German, but growing up, I often forgot that my face did not blend in with the white faces of my peers. That is, I forgot until someone—another student, a teacher, a friend—made it abundantly clear that I, somehow, was different. This is how I learned that whiteness, above all things, is privileged. Much of my young life was spent trying to gain access to this part of myself which I understood to be biologically inherent in me but that I could never seem to reflect to the rest of the world. This dissonance created a fissure between both myself and my idea of myself, a tear between the fabrics of my family’s histories that I will spend the rest of my life trying to sew back up.

Elizabeth Miki Brina understands this type of fracture completely. In her new book, Speak, Okinawa, she delves deep into her upbringing by a white American father and an Okinawan immigrant mother. Both of her parents are products of war. Her father is an American soldier whose time spent overseas during the Vietnam War has shaped and defined him for his entire life, and her mother is a woman born in Okinawa, the Japanese prefecture that is still, to this day, working to overcome the atrocities brought on by militaristic violence. When Brina’s parents marry and move to the United States, their painful histories and generational trauma follow them into their new life.

During her childhood, Brina’s mother tries to incorporate their shared Okinawan heritage into their lives. She cooks Japanese meals of “onigiri, ramen, and miso soup,” and she encourages friendships with other young Asian and mixed Asian American girls. “When my mother looks at me, she sees her daughter,” Brina writes. “She sees the part of me that is like her, the part of me that is Okinawan.” Still, Brina can’t understand why her mother insists on maintaining parts of their Okinawan culture. To her, these customs are not the cultural currency she needs to fit in with her white, American peers. It is her father she relates to more, believing he can teach her how to fit in, and that “he will help [her] be like him, a cultivated American.” Together, they go on trips to popular fast food restaurants and movie theaters, and he introduces her to classic Western literature and chaperones trips to the mall with her friends. With her father’s help, Brina begins to believe that “race and ethnicity are incidental, external peculiarities [she] can transcend,” and she begins to distance herself from her mother and their Okinawan past.

Speak, Okinawa is masterful at describing the internal dissonance that mixed race children can feel. Always, we are uncertain about which of our ethnicities to favor. Growing up, my mother, too, constantly worked to make sure I wouldn’t forget our Japanese heritage. She taught me Japanese children’s songs and we ate mochi on New Year’s Day. There was a brief period of time where I took Japanese lessons. Still, as I got older, my interest in this Japanese side of my heritage waned. I distanced myself in conversations directly related to this part of my life; I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t understand how this part of me could be useful in an American world where boys were supposed to like me for wearing Abercrombie, not because I knew how to speak this other, strangely foreign language. Like Brina, I failed to see, at least initially, that it wasn’t the clothes I wore or the things I liked that determined my popularity amongst peers, but rather that my popularity, within some groups at least, was already predetermined by the color of my skin. “The closer we got to White the better, and if we couldn’t get very close for whatever reason, well, then, tough luck,” Brina writes. When her classmates start calling her names like “Tinker Bell, because of [her] slanted eyes,” and “Miss Piggy, because of [her] pug nose” she begins to suspect her own whiteness is not readily apparent. During bouts of imagined play in which her girlfriends pretend to go on dates with members from the boy band New Kids on the Block, Brina is always paired with Danny. To her friends, he is the least attractive band member, so the girls force Brina to be his pretend girlfriend because she, the non-white member of the group, couldn’t possibly be attractive (i.e. white) enough to be paired with anyone better. In this way, Brina comes to understand that her own whiteness is inaccessible to her, and that, to her peers, her Okinawan half lacks the beauty needed to be desired by attractive young men.

Brina details the often painful isolation mixed race children feel when trying to find belonging within their inherited ethnicities. She describes this inner conflict with biting clarity: “Growing up, White was always what I strived to be, and White always felt just beyond reach. Except that I was already White. White was how I viewed the world, looked out at the world, no matter what the world saw when it looked back at me.” Searching for ways to be recognized among her peers, Brina becomes increasingly bold and brash. She learns to be clumsy for attention and starts saying yes to any boy asking her for sexual favors, misinterpreting their intentions, believing they desire her for reasons outside of fetishization. These patterns of behavior follow her into her adult life, where she eventually begins to realize that perhaps this need to be seen, to be loved, to be desired, is rooted in the disconnect she feels from being mixed race, and that it’s possible her mother’s immigrant isolation is not so different from her own.

Throughout the book, the islands of Okinawa operate as a symbol for the mixed race person. Like Brina, Okinawa is a place caught between two worlds, unsure of how to define oneself. In her chapters about Okinawa, Brina alternates between speaking from the viewpoints of the local Okinawans and the US soldiers who came to stake their claim on this land. Through the use of the first-person plural, she recognizes and takes ownership of both of her histories by incorporating herself into the story. She is Okinawan when she says, “We see a band of ships approaching the shore. We see the enemy, with their pale pink faces and straight white shiny teeth, standing on the decks, waving and laughing,” and she is American when she says, “We march forward to the tune of ‘Hail, Columbia,’ and enter the palace grounds. We are the first foreigners to set foot on the palace grounds.” In these instances, Brina becomes part of the “we,” ultimately inhabiting the island of Okinawa as both oppressor and oppressed. She understands that while the world might only see her Okinawan features, she has also inherited a whiteness fraught with its own traumas. “I believe we inherit sin as much as we inherit trauma,” she writes. “I believe inherited sin is its own form of trauma.”

In one beautifully rendered chapter, Brina lays out, almost in list form, all of the crimes committed against the Okinawans at the hand of the United States military. Land is stolen and burned. Women and young girls are brutally kidnapped and raped. Okinawans are murdered. Brina recounts these tragedies down to the years they were committed, creating a record of all the unspoken horrors that the people of Okinawa have endured and still endure today. This list creates a cumulative effect that works to solidify the importance of freeing Okinawa from the hands of the United States military. She reminds us that the United States still occupies twenty percent of the Okinawan parish, and that the Okinawans have been working diligently to get their land back. She ends the chapter by pleading with the US government. “It’s not too late,” she says. “Turn back. Turn back.”

At the core of Speak, Okinawa, there is forgiveness. Oftentimes, the book reads like an apology. On one of her many trips to Japan, Brina was struck by “the culture of apology” she encountered from the Japanese people she met. “With every apology, they seemed to acknowledge that their actions affected me, that all of our actions affect each other,” she writes. In America, we are always told to stop apologizing. To do so repeatedly can often take on an air of weakness and insecurity. However, this ability to reflect on how your choices and your actions affect the people around you is crucial to understanding what Brina is after here. She questions whether a person can ever truly apologize enough. We all must learn to recognize the traumatic histories we are born from, histories filled with both trauma and sin, and understand that in order to overcome both of these things, apology and forgiveness must be continual practices.

In Speak, Okinawa, Brina holds a mirror to her own past to confront both the tragedies inflicted upon her ancestors and at the hands of her ancestors. “Half of me was born with a sense of entitlement, a sense of the right to pursue happiness, to control and improve my life while taking for granted the resources and methods to do so,” she writes. “Half of me is offended by the label of privilege, by the notion that there is no such thing as clean wealth, as pure good fortune. Half of me is afraid of accusation, of culpability, of guilt. Half of me uses the other half to maintain innocence.” Here, she takes on the roles of oppressor and victim equally, navigating the channels of her complicated family history in order to get closer to a more compact definition of herself as both an American citizen and the daughter of an immigrant. “My mother before me is a story,” she writes, and for the entirety of the book, Brina works to record this story alongside her father’s and her own. She bears witness to her family’s complicated histories, and in doing so, she bears witness to herself, a mixed race woman born out of the generational trauma of two distinct, beautiful, tragic worlds.

Miyako Pleines is a Japanese and German American writer living in Illinois. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in Hypertext Review, the Ploughshares blog, and Hapa Mag, among others, and is forthcoming from the Sierra Nevada Review. She also writes a monthly column about birds and books for the Chicago Audubon Society. Follow her on Instagram at @literary_miyako. More from this author →