If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
–“God Only Knows,” The Beach Boys
A friendship disrupted by a violent killing would be difficult for anyone to process. As a college student, Hua Hsu felt compelled to write in a journal after the sudden, shocking death of his good friend Ken, who was carjacked, abducted and shot in the head in the summer of 1998. He jotted down lists of places they went together. He penned letters to Ken and his future self, and he documented the most routine details of their time together. It was both a form of escape and a way to keep his friend close. Hsu also hung on to – even clung to – ephemera from their shared experiences as undergraduates at UC Berkeley.
Hsu never stopped writing. He’s been a culture critic for The New Yorker since 2017 and he teaches literature at Bard College. But it took two decades before he felt able to tackle this personal subject matter in a public forum. In 2019, Hsu received a Cullman Center fellowship at New York Public Library. The fellowship gave him the space to create a narrative rooted in that earlier time and place (hello fax machines and American Online, Amoeba Music and Revolution Books). Hsu holed up with photos, posters, zines and other keepsakes from the era, referenced his journals, listened to playlists from the period and tapped away on an old desktop to help create the aesthetic of the time. The result: Stay True, which has won numerous literary awards and critical acclaim, including the 2023 inaugural Pulitzer Prize for memoir or autobiography. (See Melissa Hung’s review of the book for MindSite News here.)
Hsu’s time capsule treasure trove helped him recreate the texture of college life, from the mundane to the magical. He describes a delicious mix of innocence and independence, searching for self and finding your people. In an appearance in Oregon at the Portland Book Festival in November 2022, he called it “the banal ecstasy of being a young person and just how gorgeous it could be to just hang in a parking lot with your friends trying to figure out what to do next.” All of this before tragedy struck.
Looking back, Hsu realized he didn’t have the language at the time of Ken’s death to be able to articulate the irreplaceable loss of someone he loved, whom many people loved. It was a different era: Hsu and his classmates weren’t offered access to college grief counseling, they simply went back to school after attending their friend’s funeral, where Hsu gave a collective eulogy. But he was haunted by the incident, which impacted the trajectory of his own life story in large and lasting ways. In the immediate aftermath, his musical preferences took an abrupt turn from indie pop to hip hop, with its emphasis on friends conquering the world.
“For me, music was a way of learning how to have emotions,” Hsu said in an October 2022 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. “You learn how to be happy, how to fall in love, you learn about heartache through music before you experience some of these things at their greatest intensities.”
Was writing Stay True a cathartic experience? “I didn’t write it with any intention in mind, other than wanting to understand some things about myself. Maybe it was an attempt at healing, but I couldn’t really articulate it that way,” Hsu explained in an email to MindSite News. “I felt more drawn to a general desire to imagine a different timeline, or to look forward, rather than stay anchored in the past. It was interesting to revisit the past with a more present-day understanding of grief or trauma. It wasn’t triggering to write about the past, though it was sad to revisit.”
Indeed, his wife reportedly dubbed an initial draft too depressing. Poet Ken Chen, who was a Cullman Center fellow at the same time as Hsu, agreed, calling an early version “relentlessly sad” during a 2022 panel discussion. But in the course of refining his manuscript, Hsu had a breakthrough: It was OK to write about the meandering conversations over countless cigarettes, the idle hanging-out and spontaneous excursions that constituted much of his relationship with Ken.
“It was also really nice to be able to turn those memories into something else. When I first started writing, I was really stuck on all the sad stuff, the loss,” he said. “But over time, I grew more comfortable writing about the good memories, too. That was a big turning point. “
And he shouldn’t be gone, in front of his home
What they did to boo was wrong
Oh so wrong, oh so wrong
Gotta hold on gotta stay strong
—“The Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
College is often a tender time when intimate, formative friendships begin that continue into “real-world” adulthood and beyond. And that’s true for Hsu, who says he is still in regular contact with nearly all his close friends from his undergraduate days. Their four years together were filled with alternative music, indie movies, mix-tapes and inside jokes; conversations on identity, belonging, immigration and assimilation. They were preoccupied with late-night parties and lazy afternoons, made impromptu trips to record shops and thrift stores, along with spontaneous drives down the coast while singing and smoking. But after his junior year, Ken was missing from the action and adventures.
Hsu grapples with the hole left in his life and his friendship circle in the wake of Ken’s murder. While the book deftly captures the energy and earnestness of that chapter of life, Hsu also writes about it through the lens of time and distance with gentle humor and a grown-up’s perspective. After all, the 40something Hsu is now a Brooklyn dad who has been a college professor for more than 15 years. The passage of time hasn’t stopped him from curating an eclectic writing portfolio at The New Yorker, covering such disparate subjects as fungi and football, bell hooks and Bjorn, while also writing about Asian American creatives and hip hop musicians.
Ken’s killing was the first time someone dear to Hsu had died. In fact, it was the first terrible thing that had happened to him. In the memoir, readers learn that Ken liked mainstream music (looking at you Pearl Jam). He was an assimilated Japanese American and a frat boy who wore conventional clothing – a complete contrast to Hsu, who spent time in Taiwan, favored indie pop and wore thrift store finds (think tons of corduroy). Differences aside, Hsu was drawn to Ken’s confidence, curiosity, kindness, open-heartedness, optimism and humor. In the book, Hsu gently mocks his younger self for his relentless pursuit of cool – a mask for insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Of Ken he has said: “The size and scope of his dreams were braver than mine were at the time.” But it took Ken’s pursuit of a friendship – and patience – for the two to click.
Whether the odd couple would have remained firm friends or drifted apart, they never had the chance to find out. Instead, Hsu found himself stuck in neutral and fixated on the past as a way to deal with overwhelming feelings of grief and regret. For years, he says, he was hung up on the night in question, when he left Ken and his housewarming party mid-chat to go to a warehouse rave with a new girlfriend. In a “Fresh Air” interview, he told host Terry Gross that he exited with a feeling that things were unresolved and that he had left his friend in the lurch, even though the pair often parted ways mid-conversation. This concept of a stolen future loomed large.
“I felt robbed of new memories and experiences with my friends,” Hsu told MindSite. “I think it shaped my writing by giving it a distant goal — I wanted to be able to describe certain things from the past and it took me a while to find the capacity to do that. I think I did need some distance to write this book, even though I had been writing steadily since my twenties. But part of writing memoir is turning yourself into a character and being older allowed me to do that with affection but also detachment.”
Thinking of the day
When you went away
What a life to take
What a bond to break
I’ll be missing you
–“I’ll Be Missing You” by Diddy (featuring Faith Evans and 112)
Stay True is dedicated to Ken’s family. Ken’s mother has read the book (his father is no longer alive), and she told Hsu that he was a good friend – and that the book was tough to read. “We’ve had some very sweet, very sad conversations,” he said.
Hsu’s Stay True can be seen as an attempt to try to repair the world – and, perhaps by extension, himself – through writing about a pivotal time in his past. Writing it, he says, has allowed him to move forward, reconcile confusing feelings and recall the joy of friendship amid the horror of what happened.
For Hsu, sharing the terrific yet ordinary aspects of an interrupted friendship has not diminished his grief. But it has allowed him to convey how much his friend mattered – and to offer that friend the ultimate honor: staying true.
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