Writers & Company

The tragic loss of a close friend became the impetus for Hua Hsu's acclaimed memoir Stay True

The American writer talks to Eleanor Wachtel about how the journals he kept in the aftermath of the murder of a college friend became a book 20 years later.
A man with glasses looks into the camera.
Hua Hsu is an American writer and academic. (Devline Claro)

Hua Hsu was barely in his 20s when his close friend at college, Ken, became the victim of a senseless murder. One of the first things he did was buy a journal in which to record his memories of Ken and all that they'd shared — the jokes, the music, the intense conversations. For Hsu, writing about his friend was a place to escape to, a place to lose himself on the page. 

An orange book cover with a photo of a boy holding a camera up to his eye.

More than 20 years later, he's turned those recollections into a sensitive, funny and moving memoir called Stay True. An exploration of grief, friendship, Asian American identity and memory, it was named one of the top five nonfiction titles of 2022 by the New York Times Book Review and made many other best-of-the-year lists.

Hsu was born in 1977 in Champaign-Urbana, to parents who had immigrated from Taiwan. He grew up in Cupertino in northern California's Silicon Valley. He made his name as a pop music critic but has also written about food, books, Asian American history and politics. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Artforum and Slate, as well as The New Yorker, where he's been a staff writer since 2017.

Hsu spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Brooklyn.

Bearing witness

"Writing is something that always interested me. It was the way I processed things. Immediately after we found out that Ken was gone, I went and bought a journal and started writing everything down. It seemed like a way to remember everything, to keep this archive.

"Over time, I realized it also represented a place to go. Writing was a way to feel as though I was being present but not present at the same time. It was a place to escape to, to lose myself on the page."

The struggle to fit in

"For a lot of children of recent immigrants, when you and your parents are both assimilating at the same time, that sense of discomfort gets a little heightened. Because even though your parents are authorities, even though they're adults, they're navigating this culture just as you are.

When I looked back, I realized that there were things I wanted my parents to explain to me that they were trying to figure out for themselves too.- Hua Hsu

"When I looked back, I realized that there were things I wanted my parents to explain to me that they were trying to figure out for themselves too. There was a way in which we were both parent and child trying to figure out who we were in the United States and in American culture. We were trying to understand what we could ask of the culture.

"For me, it manifested in the discomfort of, 'Am I wearing my clothes right? Am I fitting in? Is it worth trying to fit in? Maybe I can't fit in, so maybe I should invest in never fitting in.' Things like that."

Believing in ghosts

"I guess I believe in ghosts in a certain way. I like to think that he [Ken] could still access things I was writing. So sometimes it was writing to him, sometimes it was trying to remember things so I would never forget.

"We often take for granted that the people we share memories with or who are the other half of an inside joke will always be there to remind you of where the joke started. I think I instantly realized that was never going to happen again."

Keepsakes

"I've always been fascinated by these relics from the past, the idea that something could survive for that long, something that other people didn't necessarily treasure the way you do. I think it took on a very different nature in the aftermath. I thought that these objects had some kind of talismanic power — that maybe they would bring back, or trigger, some memory that I wanted to hold on to.

"Ken's killing was so senseless and sudden. But for a while, I thought if I had all of these things, if I collected enough data about it or if I knew enough about the conditions of the night it happened, that I could make sense of it.

I started to realize that having these old hats, or having these old movie ticket stubs, doesn't actually have any power beyond the memories they triggered.- Hua Hsu

"I started to realize that having these old hats, or these old movie ticket stubs, doesn't actually have any power beyond the memories they triggered. Once I was able to recover and write down those memories or think about what story they told, they returned to just being these old things."

Staying true

"When I was a student, 'stay true' was just a joke. It was something that sounded funny and deep to say, even though we never really parsed its meaning.

"But as I grew older, I realized that the idea of being true to yourself is really about being true to change and openness. The idea that there is no true text to adhere to that is you. It's a text that's always being rewritten or edited or changed, and that's what it actually means to stay true to oneself. So Stay True felt right for the title."

Connecting the past and future

"What I learned writing the book is that there's this more intimate connection between the past and the future than I understood at the time. The tribute to Ken isn't necessarily just in the past. It's also the good works of the future, that his friends, that our friends in common, that all of us take with us into the world — a piece of him. This book is part of that — it's my version of it.

I think what I learned writing the book is that there's this more intimate connection between the past and the future than I understood at the time.- Hua Hsu

"There's a point at which the past compels you to be a different person in the future. That's not something that I was ready to think about when I was 21 — or capable of thinking about. But it's a connection that I made when I was much older."

Hua Hsu's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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