A Formative Friendship Cut Short by Tragedy
STAY TRUE: A Memoir, by Hua Hsu.
One of the funny things about adolescence is that the world can seem enormous, brimming with possibility, while at the same time the urgency to define oneself — fastidiously curating likes and dislikes, ruthlessly sorting people according to their musical tastes — can make the world feel extremely small.
In his quietly wrenching memoir, “Stay True,” the New Yorker writer Hua Hsu recalls starting out at Berkeley in the mid-1990s as a watchful teenager who had cultivated a cramped sensibility. “I fixated on the lamest things people did,” he writes, delineating who he was by what he rejected — music by Oasis and Pearl Jam, anything “uncool” or “mainstream.” He identified as straight edge — no drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes — less out of punk-rock principle than out of fear: “I couldn’t imagine letting down my inhibitions around people I’d be silently judging the whole time.”
So of course he was suspicious of Ken the first time they met — Ken, the easygoing and confident frat boy who lived one floor above, a guy who listened to the Dave Matthews Band, “music I found appalling.” Ken’s style was “ruggedly generic,” all Polo shirts and backward baseball caps, while Hsu wore old-man cardigans and “an audible amount of corduroy.”
About the only thing they had in common was that they were both Asian American, but even that just obscured the gulf between their backgrounds: Hsu’s parents had immigrated from Taiwan, whereas Ken’s Japanese American family had lived in the United States for generations. Ken (identified in the book by only his first name) felt entitled to the dominant culture in a way that Hsu couldn’t quite imagine. Hsu remembers thinking how odd it was when Ken came over and didn’t take off his shoes.
Their friendship was intense, but brief. Less than three years later, Ken would be killed in a carjacking. “Stay True” is a memoir of that time, as Hsu traces the course of their relationship — one that seemed improbable at first but eventually became a fixture in his life, a trellis along which their young selves could stretch and grow.
To say that this book is about grief or coming-of-age doesn’t quite do it justice; nor is it mainly about being Asian American, even though there are glimmers of that too. Hsu captures the past by conveying both its mood and specificity: the grocery store “that took about six songs to get to”; the zine that allowed him to rearrange “photocopied images, short essays and bits of cut-up paper into a version of myself that felt real and true.” This is a memoir that gathers power through accretion — all those moments and gestures that constitute experience, the bits and pieces that coalesce into a life.
“Ken noticed that I never really went out,” Hsu writes, of his own Friday nights spent alone, reading and listening to music. “More important, he noticed that I hoped to be noticed for this.” Hsu had spent so much time sneering at mainstream culture that he didn’t expect much from it, while Ken “wanted to see himself in the world.” When a casting agent from “The Real World” visited Ken’s frat, he asked her why the producers seemed interested in portraying diversity but never had an Asian American on the show. Ken would later recall for Hsu how the casting agent responded: “She told me we don’t have the personalities for it.”
It’s an unexpected reversal. The frat boy who made special trips to Abercrombie & Fitch “was piecing together a theory about the world,” while the righteous Hsu, who had also started writing for Asian American newspapers, assumed that whenever he and Ken would make a list of the few Asian characters on sitcoms, they “were just goofing off and passing time.” But some of Ken’s “theory” seemed to leave its mark on Hsu — even if, like anything whose influence is so profound it’s subterranean, it manifested less as a doctrine than as a disposition.
Hsu’s first book, a searching work of cultural history called “A Floating Chinaman” (2016), takes its title from a lost manuscript by a Chinese writer named H.T. Tsiang, who craved mainstream success even if he refused to make any concessions to what anybody wanted. In “Floating,” Hsu describes being intrigued by Tsiang’s seemingly incommensurate vision: “I am of the belief that anyone who self-publishes an ‘American Epic’ is worth investigating, especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality.”
Hsu is a subtle writer, not a showy one; the joy of “Stay True” sneaks up on you, and the wry jokes are threaded seamlessly throughout. He recounts his relationship with his parents — how he felt extraordinarily close to them in some essential ways and distant from them in others. They seemed unable or unwilling to talk to him about Ken’s death; his mother was of the opinion that Hsu and his friends “had to find a way to get on with our lives.”
And Hsu would eventually “get on,” though Ken would necessarily be a part of what followed. So much of what Hsu has written since seems imbued by what happened 24 years ago, even when it isn’t named. An article about the rapper MF Doom elliptically recalls a time before grief; an essay about the scholar Lauren Berlant reflects on what it is to keep writing and living when one’s efforts seem futile, “even if it means giving up the certainty that our story is going to end the way we want it to.”
After Ken died, Hsu typed a letter to him, detailing all the things that Hsu would miss. “So be with me, OK, Ken?” he wrote. “Can you stay with me a little longer?”
STAY TRUE: A Memoir | By Hua Hsu | Illustrated | 196 pp. | Doubleday | $26