Hua Hsu on Bay Area friendship, mourning in memoir ‘Stay True’

On the shelf

Stay True: A Remembrance

By Hua Hsu
Doubleday: 206 pages, $28

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We had to dodge the rain again and again.

I had met Hua Hsu at Bard, the liberal arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York, and the weather made it impossible for us to sit still while we discussed his memoir, Stay True. In the book, Hsu, a brilliant, delightfully obsessive cultural critic at The New Yorker, traces how he got started thinking about music and community from childhood in Cupertino through college.

At Bard’s, the weather drove us indoors and out, from his office to benches and tables and arbors. Students streamed around us in closed packs. They had only recently arrived on campus, but prior to school they were connected online with their classmates. “They all pre-sorted who’s into what,” Hsu explained. The young Gen Xer’s experience at UC Berkeley was basically the opposite; he found his friends in an analogous way – through other friends, by chance, physical proximity.

For Hsu back then, the music you liked or the vintage sweater you wore were important signifiers. “You could only project a limited amount of yourself into the world, and you really tried to make it count,” he says. But he was; his friends didn’t care that much. His friend Ken, for example, listened to the desperately uncool Dave Matthews Band while Hsu’s alternative bona fides began his youthful worship of Nirvana. If they were starting college today, Hsu might have stayed with his tribe of music geeks and never met Ken, a brilliant frat boy.

But they became the closest of friends, part of a small group who met each other’s families, teased and helped each other, drove around and listened to music together because they had so much free time. Then, the summer before senior year, Ken was murdered in a senseless robbery. Hsu was devastated. “I took a pen,” he writes in the book, “and tried to write myself back in time.”

Since his youth, Hsu has worked on zines and tried to engage with the culture and the world through writing, but he sees Ken’s death as his birth as a writer. He struggled with grief and found strength in writing things down. “I became fixated on seeing writing as a way out, a way of reconciliation,” he told me.

"Stay True: A Remembrance" by Hua Hsu

The book progresses chronologically, allowing Hsu to tell Ken’s story as they experienced it. “When I found out that a book about tragedy could also be a book about fun, silly college stuff, or the mundane ecstasy of friendship, I thought, ‘Cool,'” he said. It’s been 24 years since Ken died, and at times writing those passages was like spending time with him again. “I don’t think it was until I got older that I realized that part of what I had to do was also hold on to the happy times, the good times, the joy.”

He’s, of course, aware of the irony that there wouldn’t have been a need to atomize those college moments if Ken hadn’t been killed. “I never would have had a reason to remember all of those things — because if he were still alive, we would have just had more experiences built up on it.” Hsu’s own experiences and those of his core group of friends are reflected in the last third of the book, including an indelible section on the funeral.

The imprint of his friends is there, invisible. They all read parts of drafts. “I don’t want the emotional center of the book to necessarily be my experience, even if it’s my story,” he says. Although anonymized in the memoir, these friends would fall under the broad census category of “Asians.” Hsu is the son of immigrants from Taiwan; Ken came from a Japanese family that lived in the United States for a long time. The publisher emphasizes their origin in the promotional materials.

My family came from England generations ago, so I apologized to Hsu for not being able to deal with these issues with any standing. He was gracious. We had many other things to talk about in the book: grief, the band CAN, California, postmodernism.

So I asked him about Jacques Derrida. I can understand why a publisher might not want to single out a notoriously obscure linguist and literary theorist on the back cover, but Hsu found a readable way to put Derrida in his memoirs. A series of Derrida’s lectures has been published as a book, The Politics of Friendship, which includes a eulogy for Jean-Francois Lyotard.

“People generally think that Derrida is difficult to understand,” Hsu said, “but when you think of friendship, of Lyotard, of the final stage of his own life, there’s so much clarity and so much grace in the way that he wrote. ”

The allusion was also not accidental to Derrida’s style or ideas. “When I was writing the book, there were these digressions — I don’t know if they’re digressions,” Hsu said (digressively), “but there are those moments where Derrida comes up, Marcel Mauss comes up.” Hsu brings these French thinkers comes into play to underscore the kind of concepts he encountered in college while also pointing out what underlies the text you are reading. In many ways the book is a portrait of the public intellectual as a young man.

Hsu, who has a PhD in American Studies from Harvard University, has great intelligence wrapped in a relaxed atmosphere. He often says “likes,” so much that it often occurs more than once in a sentence (such verbal placeholders are cut out for clarity). Maybe it grew up in California. “I still have that kind of disposition where people think I’m a little bit stoned,” he said.

“California, at least when I was growing up, was a very diverse, liberal place. That’s where people wanted to go. Everyone felt like we won because we grew up in California.” He mentions the beach, then laughs and admits he’s never been to the beach. But lately, when he teaches urban planning, his students want to write about Los Angeles.

Hsu’s office in Bard is crammed with books and music and magazines and ephemera: baseball bobbleheads, vintage tape recorders, stickers from the ’90s, a prototype 50-cent vitamin water. But when I was there it didn’t have a hint of furniture. Hsu has just moved to Bard (he previously taught at Vassar College) and his first class will be in the spring; He doesn’t have a desk or chairs yet.

“I keep a lot of things here that I shouldn’t throw away yet but have no use for. Like my old college skateboard,” he said. “But I feel like I never left college, so still having those things makes sense.”

Kellogg is a former Times book editor. You can find her on Twitter @paperhouse. Hua Hsu on Bay Area friendship, mourning in memoir ‘Stay True’

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