Towards the beginning of his new memoir, Stay True, Hua Hsu tells how he dreamed of becoming a writer during his first year of university in the 1990s, but quickly came to the conclusion that it was not to be. He submitted pieces to his campus paper, The Daily Cal, at the University of California at Berkeley, which were not just rejected; they were ignored. He was able to successfully publish with an Asian American campus newspaper and a Chinatown community paper for which he wrote about film, art and theater.
Working for a newspaper that normal people had actually heard for seemed impossible. But I was unbothered, happy to paint myself into a corner, so long as it was mine.
Now more than a quarter century on, Hsu is an established staff writer at The New Yorker as well as a Professor of Literature. Insofar as Hsu has a public persona, it’s for the former. His memoir doesn’t discuss his work at The New Yorker, but it does illustrate how he got there; Stay True also coincidentally, or perhaps not entirely, illustrates the way in which the composition of American letters has evolved since Hsu wasn’t taken seriously as a mainstream writer at university.
Stay True is a coming of age story set during Hsu’s years at Berkeley, where he meets another student named Ken. At first, Hsu doesn’t like him. Their personalities are different—Hsu quiet and Ken loud—and they come from opposite ends of California: Hsu from northern California and Ken from carefree San Diego. Then there’s their different ethnic backgrounds.
My wariness about Ken was compounded by the fact that he was Asian American, like me. All the previous times I had met poised, content people like Ken, they were white. It’s one of those obscure parts of an already obscure identity that Japanese American kids can seem like aliens to other Asians, untroubled, largely oblivious to feeling like outsiders. They gave those feelings up long ago.
Yet the two end up becoming close and find they can discuss just about anything without judgment from the other. Ken believes in Hsu as a writer and the two embark on a screenplay based on the cult classic, The Last Dragon, a martial arts film set around a character named Leroy Green, also known as Bruce Leeroy. Ken submits an essay to Hsu’s zine, a publication Hsu had started back in high school to showcase up and coming bands, many of which would go on to become mainstream. Hsu doesn’t publish Ken’s submission. Any reconsideration comes too late. Ken dies a sudden, violent death before he turns twenty-one.
What follows is Hsu’s attempt to reconcile his guilt over leaving Ken’s apartment before the murder, the injustice of the crime, and how Ken could be so full of life one night and dead the next morning without any warning or premonition.
Hua’s memoir, like his essays and articles for The New Yorker, sometimes takes an Asian-American focus and sometimes doesn’t. Hsu at first marvels at how comfortable Ken feels as a Japanese American while Hsu is still trying to carve out a place for himself as the son of immigrants. His parents came to the United States from Taiwan in the 1960s and ’70s to pursue higher education—and, as it turns out, to flee the White Terror. But much of the book centers around the very undifferentiated American parts of this friendship—baseball, rock music, Hollywood movies—which are also some of the things Hsu discusses with his father. At the end of the book Hsu explains to a therapist that his parents are, in this regard, “unbelievably non-stereotypical” for Asian parents.
Hsu writes with clarity about losing a friend at a young age and how he tried, and is still trying, to cope with his grief. Those who know Hsu from The New Yorker will undoubtedly welcome this chance to sample him book-length, and in a work more personal than his more scholarly A Floating Chinaman.
Although Stay True deals with a difficult subject, one can’t help take hope in the parallel story is Hsu’s literary success, those initial rejections from The Daily Cal notwithstanding. It’s worthy of note that when Hsu was at university it was still—as he wrote—very unusual to see a byline in a major publication with an Asian name. This has recently begun to change: at The New Yorker, that pinnacle of US publishing, Hsu can count among his colleagues such staff writers like Jia Tolentino and Jiayang Fan. Without needing to say in so many words, Hsu’s memoir is, regardless of how much more progress is needed, a hopeful illustration of how much the publishing industry has changed.