Stay True by Hua Hsu: Coming of age with grief and guilt

Cover image for Stay True by Hua HsuIt was the theme of male friendship which drew me to Pulitzer Prize-winning Hua Hsu’s Stay True, far less explored than the female variety in fiction, let alone non-fiction. Written well over two decades after the event, Hsu’s book explores his relationship with his college best friend and the aftermath of Ken’s murder during a carjacking by three random perpetrators.

I’d heard these songs hundreds of times before. But to listen to them with other people; it was what I’d been waiting for.

Hsu’s father emigrated in the ‘60s along with many Taiwanese post-grad students, taking up an engineering position in Silicon Valley then returning home when the Taiwanese semiconductor industry took off. His mother was a public health student when they met, electing to stay in America to bring up Hsu, spending the school holidays with her husband and son in Taiwan. By the time he’d enrolled in Berkeley, Hsu had carefully curated an identity based on musical taste, thrift shop clothing and a deeply ingrained sense of moral superiority. Ken was the opposite – open, friendly and mainstream – everything Hsu despised, yet over time a friendship grew opening up a world of intimacy and ease for Hsu. The night of Ken’s party, Hsu is hoping to sleep with his girlfriend for the first time, eagerly leaving the apartment, expecting to talk to Ken the next morning. After several anxious days, Ken’s body is discovered in an alley. Their circle of friends is poleaxed but it’s Hsu who adds a burden of guilt to the grief and shock experienced by them all, asking himself what would have happened if he’d not left the party?

He saw people as innately good and open-minded. I saw a bad CD collection as evidence of moral weakness.

Hsu’s moving memoir begins with his childhood experience as a second-generation immigrant, relatively at ease with the language and culture he’s brought up in yet conscious of his parents’ difference. In contrast, Ken’s Japanese American family is well established, yet both are beginning to explore their identities within a country that’s not wholly accepting of them, seeing race in terms of Black and White. Hsu is self-deprecatingly humorous about his youthful self, mildly outraged when Nirvana achieves mainstream adulation, no longer the niche cult band he’s taken up. Maintaining a relationship with his father before the days of email is tricky, solved by the purchase of a fax machine whose output provides a poignant record of his father’s attempts to bond over music. There’s an immediacy and joy in his memories of student parties, confidences exchanged and ideas tossed earnestly around in the age of mixtapes, zines and chatrooms. As Hsu obliquely acknowledges, his friendship with Ken loomed large in his young life which may not have been quite the case for his friend. His memoir ends with his final therapy session at Harvard when he promises his therapist he’ll write about all they’ve discussed one day. Over twenty-five years later he has, and most eloquently so.

Picador Books: London ‎ 9781035036370 208 pages Paperback (Read via NetGalley)

12 thoughts on “Stay True by Hua Hsu: Coming of age with grief and guilt”

  1. Interesting. I’m sure I’d have trouble writing in detail about my life, and particularly my emotional life some 25 years and more ago. Maybe that’s why I’m not a Pulitzer Prize-winner!

  2. Sounds powerful and very moving–in fact perhaps so much more so since this is a memoir rather than just a novel. I would be scared to imagine what an experience like that would do to one.

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