Hua Hsu immortalizes a friendship cut tragically short

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For 24 years, Hua Hsu has been carrying around a padded envelope stuffed with memorabilia. Things like “a pack of Export A’s with two cigarettes left,” a funeral program, letters, cassette tapes, receipts, punchlines written on napkins, a paperback copy of Edward Carr’s What Is History? Hsu hastily gathered all of these things and more in the aftermath of the murder of his friend Ken, who was killed in a carjacking in 1998, the summer before their senior year at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I’m an archivist at heart,” Hsu says during a call to his home in Brooklyn, New York. When his friend was killed, Hsu says he “just began writing everything down.” His obsessive cataloging even led his college friends to choose him to deliver the eulogy at Ken’s funeral. Hsu has continued poring over his gathered notes and memorabilia ever since, trying to find a way “to capture certain feelings since those days.” But until recently, he says, “it didn’t seem to have any possibility of becoming a narrative.”

Read our starred review of ‘Stay True’ by Hua Hsu.

As he describes in his richly probing memoir, Stay True, Hsu grew up in Cupertino, California, the only child of parents who came to the U.S. in the 1960s for college and to escape a repressive regime in Taiwan. He was an often solitary child who found expression through and distinguished himself with his avid love of music, which he wrote about in vibrant personal zines. At Berkeley, he curated mixtapes for every occasion, like trips in his Volvo with Ken and others to pick up friends from the airport or even just for local food runs. Outside of curating the aesthetics of his personal identity, Hsu spent those years tutoring inmates at San Quentin State Prison, volunteering as a mentor for youths in neighboring Richmond, California, and participating in the growing Asian American-led political movements of the 1990s.

Hsu says he hopes Stay True captures the feeling of that moment. “I want the book to sound like what life was like then. It’s hard to describe to someone who didn’t experience America Online what boredom felt like at the time, or what the pace of life is like if you’re in college pre-internet, or just what it felt like to be at Berkeley. . . . I didn’t want it to be purely nostalgic. I wanted it to feel like you’re just hanging out in this other time.”

“I didn’t want it to be purely nostalgic. I wanted it to feel like you’re just hanging out in this other time.”

Within these descriptions of pre-Y2K Northern California, Ken often seems elusive. Hsu quotes his therapist and another friend who asked him how close he really was to Ken, and foregrounding that question was deliberate, Hsu says. “When you’re young, you’re just living day to day. Then if there’s some kind of fracture or trauma, you’re forced to step out of your context and examine what’s meaningful to you. There’s a way I took this friendship for granted. When I was writing in my journal, I was always returning to how to describe [Ken]: his voice, his laugh, his skin. You’d never have occasion to do something like that if he were still alive. The question of closeness only becomes visible when it’s no longer there.”

Stay True by Hua Hsu

Hsu, who arrived at Berkeley with alternative rock sensibilities and a deliberately oddball style of dress, did not immediately like Ken, a handsome, conventionally dressed, self-assured fraternity member. Ken was a Japanese American whose grandparents had been incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II, but compared to Hsu, Ken had thoroughly assimilated, down to the Abercrombie wardrobe. In this way, Ken seemed to represent to Hsu a different life path—one he was initially skeptical about. “He was comfortable in his own skin,” Hsu says. “He was confident. . . . It started off as something I would just dismiss, and then it became intriguing.”

One of Stay True‘s many fascinating qualities is its examination of the differing ways Asian Americans embrace and reject American culture. In particular, Hsu writes lovingly of his parents’ experiences as new immigrants. At one point, Hsu’s father was able to return to Taiwan to work as a well-paid professional. This being the pre-internet age, he communicated with his son via fax machine while he was in Taiwan, and the fatherly love expressed in those faxes is remarkable. At another point, Hsu describes his mother, no longer among the newest immigrants to her San Jose suburb, almost comically deriding the rudeness of more recent Chinese immigrants to burgeoning Silicon Valley.

“The question of closeness only becomes visible when it’s no longer there.”

But Stay True‘s focus remains on a friendship: its qualities, its vagaries, its lingering questions and impacts, frozen and spotlighted by its traumatic end. After Berkeley, Hsu went on to Harvard, where he continued to obsess over his late friend while feeling “marooned” on the East Coast. These days, he says he “doesn’t feel entirely at home anywhere,” but he’s at least acclimated to the East Coast. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and until recently, he was an associate professor of English and director of American Studies at Vassar College. In 2022, he became a professor of literature at Bard College, teaching writing and Asian literature. He and his wife have a 7-year-old son. Marital strife, he jokes, centers on alternate street parking and who will fulfill the work quota at the food co-op.

So much has changed in the last 24 years—but creating this book after so much time and deliberation has not brought Hsu catharsis or closure, he says. “That feels too climactic. But it has given me a lot of peace.”

Headshot of Hua Hsu by Devlin Claro

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