“Recalling a memory is not like watching a film of what happened. We edit and modify memories each time we recall them,” said Peggy St Jacques, assistant professor in the Faculty of Science’s Department of Psychology. She explains how the fluctuation of memory and the brain’s ability to edit memories allows us as humans to grow and move forward. New Yorker staff writer, Hua Hsu, lays himself open in Stay True as he looks back at his adolescence years and a friendship shortened by an unfortunate incident.
At a Skylight Books’ speaker event in Echo Park, Hsu explained to an audience on how he came to write Stay True, and his reflection of the published memoir. “A lot of the book is about me and the fog of memory. There’s a point where I’m wrestling if I’m remembering things right. Or if I’m just remembering things that put me in a good light.”
Hsu masterfully shapes his undergraduate years at Berkley through an introspective lens, searching around the memories of his younger, cynical self. Reflecting on his upbringing under Taiwanese immigrant parents, he writes, “The first generation thinks about survival; the ones that follow, tell the stories.” As a 1.5–not first and not quite second–generation Asian American, I felt strongly attuned to this sentiment as it gave words to my lifetime of conversations with other immigrant children.
Starting out with his parents’ time as graduate students in the United States during Taiwan’s White Terror in the 1960s and 70s, Hsu connects his parent’s experiences in this time of transition as one of many that impact Asian American history. They would eventually settle in Cupertino, alongside many other Asian immigrants. While his father was in between Taiwan and California for work, Hsu would exchange letters and messages with him through fax as it was more pragmatic than a long-distance call. Even though they had a small language barrier and time zone difference, his father would share his perspective and support Hsu through his questions and struggles with his identity.
“I was an American child, and I was bored, and I was searching for my people,” writes Hsu. As a teenager without a flock, Hsu looks for direction in how to carve an identity for himself. After many attempts at diving into sports and bland sitcoms, Hsu would find himself enamored in the world of music after hesitantly checking out his father’s vinyls. This passion would eventually lead him to grow closer to his father, cultivate a blooming interest in creating zines, and ultimately develop friendships at Berkley.
In the novel, Hsu is undeniably ‘hipster’ in the 21st century definition of the word: from his judgements on people’s taste in mainstream music to hailing his anti-corporate stance in his sophomore college apartment. “I saw coolness as a quality primarily expressed through erudite discernment, and I defined who I was, by what I rejected… I knew what I was against but I couldn’t imagine what stood on the other side.” However, it’s during his freshman year at Berkeley where he makes an unlikely friendship with Ken, who may as well have been the antithesis of Hsu. Through the self-analysis of their differences–from their ethnicities, personalities, hometowns, and taste in music–he breathes life into Ken as if he was present in the reader’s own life.
“We all look alike, until you realize we don’t, and then you’ve been getting the feeling that nobody could possibly seem more different,” Hsu reflects on their shared backgrounds as Asian Americans. Although Ken was Japanese American from a family who had been in the US for several generations, his ability to claim a connection to American culture contrasts with Hsu, who at the time, was still figuring that out for himself. They develop their fraternal bond in the span of a year, able to exchange philosophical ideas and their personal thoughts on media and entertainment.
Hsu carefully narrates his youth with the richness of a scene in film photos, giving the reader glimpses into his budding adulthood and expanding world. However, the boundless possibilities of Hsu’s world caves in after he closes himself off after Ken’s sudden death during a botched robbery. In the coming months, he dwells on the loss of his friend by writing letters to him in order to comprehend the meaning behind an unpredictable tragedy.
At the same Skylight Book event, Hsu was asked, “There was a long time before you were able to write this story. What was the point where you said to yourself that it was time to write this story?” He responded, “I would write [in a journal] about how I was doing so that our jokes would live on. But I realized later it was a way to not be present.” His inward reflection on “what could’ve been” ultimately gives him the strength to forgive himself in the memoir’s closing pages.
To a child of the 1990s, Stay True provides a window into the experiences of the Asian American generation that came before. I found myself drawn to Hsu’s prose during his grief rumination, and in showing his vulnerable moments through a published memoir, I had come to see how healing isn’t linear.
In a closing question about Hsu’s perspective on Asian pride, he shared, “Cycling through these differences experiences in Richmond and debating stuff with Ken shook my sense that there’s a fixed identity to aspire toward. It’s sort of what the book is about.”
As a rich testimonial to a dear friend, Hsu’s visits of his time with Ken shows how he continues to be part of his life. “It’s more about staying true to who you might be and what that identity can become…My attachment to it being a finite point on the horizon changed as I grew older.”