In the late 1990s, two freshmen at UC Berkeley meet, and they seem like opposites at first: One is a sincere and confident Japanese American frat boy into the Dave Matthews Band, and the other a quiet and sardonic Taiwanese American who loves zines and grunge. One is comfortable with slinging beers and talking to girls; the other prides himself on staying in on Friday nights. But they exchange cigarettes, opinions on music and books, and from the rigid categories teenagers slot themselves into emerge Ken and Hua, a pair of close friends. Their friendship gets solidified through endless ribbing, car rides, and on one occasion, failing to throw a Snapple bottle through the window of a rival frat house. And then, a month before their senior year begins, Ken is killed in a carjacking. In his grief, Hua becomes “obsessed with the possibility of a sentence that could wend its way backward,” and the indelible marks of this friendship rewrite the contours of his life.
It is this friendship that Hua Hsu, a New Yorker staff writer and professor at Bard College, recounts in Stay True. Hsu writes with tenderness but scorching precision about the aftermath of a friend’s death–the self-recrimination, all the self-doubt about one’s significance to the friend’s life, the dogged attempts to keep going. It is genuinely one of the most moving portraits of friendship to have come out in recent years.
In his cultural criticism, Hsu is attentive, curious, always charitable, when illuminating some facet of the cultural object at hand, and that same ethos comes across in conversation. We talked about music criticism, friendship as a model for collective becoming, and the meaning of authenticity. The interview has been edited for clarity.
RH: You mention The Politics of Friendship by Derrida, and you use it as a framing device for the book; you cite Mauss’s The Gift. Stay True is really interested in the collective experience of emotionally resonant friendship that allows you to grow intellectually. How were you thinking about keeping the personal in, but also maintaining a remove from that particular friendship in order to think more capaciously about friendship in general?
HH: That was my hang-up for a really long time—just the ethics of writing about someone, and then imposing structure on life, when life is just randomness and coincidence, and those structures don’t necessarily emerge to the individual as it happens. Figuring out how to make it a bit more exterior facing or more collective rather than just reflecting my own sadness, which I don’t actually think is interesting, was really important for me. People can relate to being sad, but you’ll never experience another person’s sadness. I wasn’t really interested as a writer in explaining my emotions. Those references you’re talking about: on the one hand, it’s sort of a joke—I certainly would be the type of person who would refer to a thinker, rather than just expressing how I actually feel about something. At least, I was definitely like that in college. Part of the book is trying to perform that. But I also find those thinkers to be incredibly useful and moving, and trying to understand what it means to work on behalf of others or to work for others is something that I learned in scholarship, in writing. It’s something I learned through music, like Diddy making music on behalf of and for Biggie. That stuff is all in my mind, like models for how to share a spotlight, or at least to kind of deflect and bring others along with you.
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RH: The way your friendship with Ken deepens is through the acquisition of all of these different LPs, cassette tapes and through the conversations that you guys have about books and girls and cigarettes. In a way, you can totally read this not just as a tale about friendship but as a story of you coming into your own as a critic. I’m curious to know if that was intentional or if it was just an easier way for you to talk about grief.
HH: In the longer version that I wrote, there were these tangents about being a critic and what it means to wield opinions, and it just wasn’t actually that interesting. I’ve always been interested in a song or a book or a film in terms of what it has to say about being alive in the moment of its creation, you know—this is how someone felt or saw the world in that moment. What is it that they saw? And I feel like there’s a model of criticism, especially when I started, in which it was more about having the correct take on something—this is good because of X, Y, and Z, or is terrible because of A, B, and C. I’ve actually never been very confident in my opinions about music; I feel that everything I like is between a 6.8 and a 7.9. I don’t necessarily think that all the stuff I like should be a 10.
You’re totally right that there is a way in which it is about me becoming a critic. But I think the aspect that manifests in my criticism is, I’m just really interested in the relationship between art, life, and our imagination, and what we’re capable of imagining. Less so than, like, opinions, which I think are probably more the kind of stuff that we were doing in college, where you’re just saying that, no, no, Boyz II Men are superior to the Beatles, and having these debates that are aesthetic debates, but also just ways of carving out space for yourself.
RH: But those debates deepen into actual conversations about the worth of an object, which is what I find really interesting—how it’s incarnated in this model of friendship between you and Ken. At the same time, it also feels like sometimes we don’t really get Ken as a full person—there are these vacillations and distances between you and him. Was withholding images of Ken something you were keeping in mind as you were writing the book?
HH: That’s a really good question. I don’t know how intentional it was, but I think it was a real effect of the writing process. In terms of Ken’s presence, I’ve never been particularly good at those forms of description as a writer, but it’s also just so hard to describe people who were so intimate to you that certain things you notice about them become very hard to put on the page. There’s this lingering doubt, which I probably carry on to this day, which is that, well, we were friends for three years. That’s a huge part of one’s life circa age 20. But as you get older, you’re like, who knows what would happen one way or another [in the future]? As I note in the book, he had such meaningful friendships with so many people. It’s not as though I could ever really claim a complete understanding of what he was like. I wanted him to remain a little hazy to the reader because I think that’s clearly the effect that he was having on me, as an energy or a spirit or a guide, after he passed.
RH: Besides detailing all these different relationships, just out of frame are all these different questions about politics that are filtered in, through scenes like Ken reading Laclau, or your ex-girlfriend Mira and you attending a meeting with Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs. How do you see these smaller moments pointing to a bigger context outside of your immediate friendships, and greater left or progressive politics operating throughout the book?
HH: When my parents came to the US for graduate school, my mom would always tell me the story of this student who couldn’t adjust—always wearing the wrong clothes, like wearing a heavy winter coat in the dead of summer or something like that. I feel like that’s a very classic immigrant story, where you move to a new context, and you just can’t really reckon with it, and it just eats away at you, or you’re in a permanent state of alienation. In the book, as in my life, I was probably as narcissistic as the next person, as most 17-, 18-year-olds are, very consumed with their own anxieties and hopes. But I was always trying to claim that it was part of some larger ethos, or subculture, or cause. I don’t think I really understood what that meant until going to Berkeley, where you’re bombarded with student politics and you find these political communities. There was a sense both in the book and in real life of juggling why I found these political communities really important to me, outside these friendships, where these aren’t the same people anymore, and how do you bridge that? If you’re a really good person, you would probably try and bridge it by bringing these two sides together. But I wasn’t as persuasive as I thought I was. That tension flares up in the book sometimes when I’m interested in this game of brinkmanship, especially when it comes to politics or culture that other people aren’t really interested in.
My parents would tell me stories of being involved in student movements in the 1970s, and they would always frame it in terms of, well, nothing really happened. They didn’t want me to be disillusioned. I would always say, yes, but you found these communities of people you’re still friends with now, and that’s a meaningful outcome. A desire for political community as a defense against loneliness or solitude or apathy or cynicism shows up occasionally in the book. It’s not ultimately what allows me—it’s so weird to say me, but I am a character in the book—to figure things out necessarily, but [political community] is sort of a model. Like the film that we were making, which was terrible, was actually this utopian coming together of different people to make something together. That’s something that I retain a great deal of faith in.
RH: How do those political commitments operate in your contemporary work now? Say, with your writing on anti-Asian violence, for example? I’m always curious to see what people say about that question because I have no answers for it.
HH: In a lot of my work, whether it’s music criticism or reporting, I’m just constantly in search of reasons to remain hopeful and to believe in things. It’s easy if not tempting, sometimes, to live in the space of contradiction or contrarianism. And those are also aspects of my personality. The reason I like doing journalism is that you get to interview people, maybe people you disagree with, but you then have to figure out how to talk to them, how to live with them, and I feel like that is all anyone’s really trying to do—figure out how to live together, how to be together. At the center of all of this work, whether it’s about political organizing or about musicians trying to present their best selves, I’m interested in the circumference of our imagination, what role our politics and literature play in allowing us to imagine the future. So much of what draws me to the things I write about is the question: What kind of future does this thing or person condition? And do I feel a part of this vision for the future?
It seems so simple, but I think a lot of times the texture of the present is so fascinating to scrutinize that the idea of there being this future that the present or the past can help us imagine is sometimes lost. Or you feel like a sucker looking toward the future. That’s actually one of the unifying interests in a lot of my work. You know, I understand and subscribe to the idea of “left melancholy,” or all these different ways in which it’s difficult to imagine the future. But whether it’s at a very contained human level or a much larger cultural level, I think that’s something I’m just interested in.
RH: I’d argue that we are living in a boom of Asian American memoirs. I’m curious: How do you feel about your book becoming part of this pantheon?
HH: Artists, writers should just write whatever they want to write, and people should feel like there will be audiences for these types of stories. I think the people writing these things, the people they’re writing for have always cared, and it’s good that literary marketplaces recognize this now. Personally, I do feel a little wary about how the market works, right? Growing up the way I did in the 1990s, you just feel such an embarrassment about the self. So the idea of then entering this marketplace where people are rewarded for talking about themselves—it’s strange to have started doing this, when this seemed impossible.
When I started this, what was baked into the book was, how do you tell these stories when nobody understands your context and really cares about your context? Ken and I had all these conversations about how multiculturalism was big in the 1990s, and there should be room for all of our stories and yet, there were still ways in which we felt deeply marginalized. So that’s always been an unshakable part of how I see my own work, my own presence in the literary world.
All I can say is, it is very strange that people care about this stuff now. I feel sometimes that what people get judged on is the quality of their experience rather than the quality of what they say about it or what they learn from that experience. That actually gave me pause for quite a while. I was like, well, it’s not really that interesting, because nothing happened to me. If it’s a book about me, all that happened was, I was proximate to this terrible thing and like, is that really a story?
RH: This book is called Stay True, which is an in-joke between you and your college friends. But all of these notions about what being authentic means and looks like (and conversely, the fear of being a poser) permeate the book. You bring up Charles Taylor, and you’re also writing a book about impostor syndrome. What is authenticity, or at least, how does that idea work in the book?
HH: What Taylor, and the politics of recognition in general, remind you is that you need a community or a critical mass of people to then recognize your authenticity, or to recognize that you’re different. In the book, I’m just totally obsessed with not being a poser, because I remember posers in high school, and how laughable, how hilarious they were. I was definitely, well probably, one as well, in my own way. Whenever Ken and I would have these conversations where he poked at my persona or my sense of taste, in the moment I found it really annoying. But then thinking back, you’re like, well, it wouldn’t work if you didn’t have these border skirmishes or opportunities to refine who you were in relation to other people in your life. You would never really know yourself. What’s more meaningful is you playing someone a song, and their thinking it’s bad, and their playing you a song, and you thinking it’s even worse. The conversation is the thing that matters more than being able to say you liked the song, which is something that I didn’t really realize at the time. Who knows if the imposter syndrome book will ever actually happen—it just seems so far away!
RH: Final question: what do you think it means to be a good friend?
HH: Actually listening to what people will tell you. That’s where good friendships start. Listening in as deep and compassionate a way as possible.