When Hua Hsu first met Ken — a Pearl Jam devotee, confident fraternity brother and aspiring architect at UC Berkeley — his first instinct was aversion. Ken was too “mainstream,” writes Hsu in “Stay True: A Memoir.” “He was a genre of person I actively avoided.”
Released Sept. 27, “Stay True” parses Hsu’s past with fierce perceptivity, plating The New Yorker staff writer’s youth in compelling prose. Despite Hsu’s sour first impression of Ken, the two become unlikely friends; together, they debate movie subtexts, nurse a twin pair of cigarette habits and exchange fervent dreams for the future. Then, only a few years after their first encounter, Ken is violently murdered in a carjacking. For decades after the tragedy of Ken’s passing, Hsu turned to writing — searching, by any means possible, for meaning in a seemingly senseless world.
“Stay True” thus emerges as Hsu’s effort to both preserve memories and navigate the contours of youth. Interspersed within the memoir’s narrative body are scholarly excerpts, patchworked journal passages and old photographs — simultaneous remnants of his zinemaking hobby and reminders of an era drawn taut by tragedy. Gradually, Hsu’s words become as much authorities of change as artifacts of the past: “The more I wrote about Ken, the more he became someone else,” Hsu writes, even as he, too, fashions a new persona for himself through grief.
Entrenched in the glaze of memory, Hsu writes with rumination armed by the fragments of his youth. Teetering between details wrought with flashbulb clarity and others with the retrospection of year-drenched haze, “Stay True” grapples with the problem of specificity posed by the memoir genre. Hsu recalls exactly how many songs it took to drive to the grocery store on College Avenue (six, to be specific), yet admits to have lost the inside joke that the memoir’s title borrows from. He bears the inconsistency, however, with grace; a keen understanding of the complications of time penetrates each page, grounding the book’s philosophizing tone.
In an interview with Vulture, Hsu referred to his Berkeley days as an “aesthetic.” It’s a description that implies a sensuous experience of the departed past, flush with circumstantial visuals and the peculiarities of a bygone campus. Yet, the assuredness of his writing in “Stay True” evinces an uncanny, coeval familiarity that feels more like visceral revisitation than distant recollection — as Hsu maps Berkeley’s Southside streets and returns continually to Amoeba Music, there remains a sense of intimacy that suggests that the phantom of the past is close enough to hold.
Hsu’s prose is measured and thoughtful, spiking with lyricism at all the right moments while maintaining a piercing contemplation of the past. There’s a subtleness to the memoir’s sentimentality that gently interrogates the dynamics of family, relationships and identity; quiet strength infuses its sincerity. As he reflects on his experience as a child of Taiwanese immigrants, scrutinizes social theories on friendship and ponders his relationship with art and mourning, Hsu draws tangents to his greater realizations about the world — language, reciprocity, catharsis. Though “Stay True” does, at times, meander across its myriad themes, its digressions are accompanied by Hsu’s deep percipience and attuned sensitivities.
A latent power resides in the way Hsu opens the vault of his experiences without the ceremonies of dramatism; the memoir realizes itself unhelped by blatancy yet propelled by candor. His teenage invincibility is rendered with incisive self-awareness but reared by youthful romanticism. His political observations are honest, but unwilling to unfurl and overcrowd. The dichotomy positions the reader as both ever-present witness and willing confidante — even, perhaps, a friend.
“‘I’m going to write about all this one day,’” Hsu tells his graduate school therapist on the memoir’s final page. It’s a clever way of ending a book without shelving the author’s story; Hsu proves his claim before declaring it. And prove it he does: more than embodying a coming-of-age chronicle, “Stay True” is a poignant reflection on the intricacies of finding purpose against a hurtling backdrop of time, change and friendship, and all colored in the unfaltering, tender force of Hsu’s voice.