Stay True: A Memoir
“The first generation thinks about survival; the ones that follow tell the stories,” writes Hua Hsu in the opening chapters of his memoir Stay True. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Hsu is the one to tell us his story of friendship, identity building, grief, and his search for solace after tragedy, by taking us back then to his teenage years in the Bay Area in the nineties. Back when mixtapes were vital, when years passed when you wouldn’t pose for a picture, when email accounts were checked weekly. Back when Ken was alive…
We first meet Ken in Hsu’s car during their freshman year at Berkeley. We learn Ken was “ready for adventure. More often than not, a song’s drive to 7-Eleven for cigarettes.” And then swiftly, Hsu takes us to before back then. Guided by insight gleaned from years of reflection, Hsu understands that first we need to know his history.
Hsu’s parents both came to the U.S. for graduate school. As Hsu is beginning high school, his father moves back to Taiwan for work and the family buys a fax machine to keep in contact. Hsu details his faxes to his father about his math homework, interspersed with his digests of American news–from Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive, to the events that led up to the Los Angeles riots. Both Hsu and his father share a love of music and we are given glimpses into his father’s thoughtful takes on the latest songs by Pearl Jam, Guns N' Roses, and Nirvana. After Kurt Cobain’s suicide, his father faxes: “That’s the dilemma of life: you have to find meaning, but by the same time, you have to accept the reality. How to handle the contradiction is a challenge to every one of us. What do you think?”
In many ways Stay True is Hsu’s exploration of what he thinks of this dilemma as he reflects on Ken’s death. What meaning is there to be found in a “freak occurrence” murder? Can you learn to accept that reality?
When Hsu first meets “mainstream” Ken, he hates him. He is too handsome, too poised, too content. Japanese American families like Ken’s who have often been in the country for generations, Hsu believes, don’t experience the discomfort the children of recent immigrants like himself feel and for that Hsu finds Ken alien. However, after the two connect over thrifting, we are taken on the journey of their college years. We learn about their favorite place to study, the films they watch together, their enthusiastic plans for the future.
Hsu delicately captures the urgency and intimacy of adolescent friendships. Through his prose you are pulled back to your own coming-of-age years. Yes, you remember, you too were always eager for something to happen, hands deep in your pockets, trying to figure out where to go next. Yes, a year was once a whole geological era. Back then, you too would have driven anywhere so long as you were together with your friends.
As Hsu and Ken’s friendship grows, so too does Hsu’s sense of identity. By the end of freshman year, he writes that the “light felt rich with possibility. You wanted to believe there was no better time or place on earth than this, right now.” As we ride this wave of Hsu and Ken’s blossoming friendship, we know that Ken will at some point be killed. But Hsu avoids foreshadowing the murder. Just as their senior year is about to begin, Ken hosts a party at his apartment. Hsu stops by before heading to a rave. They have no grand goodbye.
When no one has heard from Ken after a few days, they report him missing to the police. We learn that Ken’s body has been found in the quiet way we often learn of personal tragedy, the words just passed along from one person to another without ceremony. Ken was thrown into his trunk, robbed of his wallet, and then shot by total strangers.
In the immediate aftermath of Ken’s death Hsu concludes, “It suddenly made sense to always assume the worst.” He begins to write to Ken in his journal, obsessed with “the possibility of a sentence that could wend its way backward.” He takes on the phrase It’s fucked up the way it is sometimes as his new worldview and as a reader you can’t help but wonder if no further meaning can be found from such a random act of violence. What do you think?
Hsu ends up in Boston, the city Ken had planned to move to, for graduate school. Pursuing a path in writing, Hsu comes to recognize that had Ken not died, perhaps their friendship wouldn’t have played such a significant role in his life. Would they have grown apart? Would he have had a reason to fixate on his coming of age with such focus?
The role of the accident in history captivated both Hsu and Ken. In a history book of Ken’s that Hsu reads after his death, he notes they are both drawn to a passage that underscores that for any event to happen differently the antecedent causes would have had to have been different, too. While we might mull over how things could have been, in reality “these alternative paths were never open.”
When Hsu comes to accept that reality, he knows what he needs to now do. “I needed to figure out how to describe the smell of secondhand smoke on flannel…the sound of our finals week mixtape wheezing to the end of its spool,” he tells his therapist. “Which metaphors were useful and which were not, what to explain and what to keep secret. The look when someone recognizes you.”
In Stay True, Hsu has figured all that out and more.