When Hua Hsu was a student at UC Berkeley in the mid-1990s, a classmate organized a class on slain rapper Tupac Shakur. Led by students, the class focused on Tupac as another way of viewing medieval notions of heroism and chivalry, Hsu writes. The student-led class was exciting and a bit confusing, he recalls. “Was Pac destabilizing our idea of a grassroots program, or was he now simply being greeted as an American outlaw, further proof of the nation’s splendid ability to make room for all? “
In truth, Hsu wasn’t so sure the country was making room for his own presence, despite being born in Illinois. His parents were from Taiwan; they never quite Americanized. By contrast, Hsu’s college friend Ken, a Japanese-American kid from suburban San Diego, was a quintessential son of America. He loved Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band; in Berkeley, he joined a fraternity, where all the brothers wore their baseball caps backwards.
“The first time I met Ken,” Hsu writes in this moving new memoir, “I hated him.” Ken depicted the lighthouse around which Hsu endeavored to orient a wide berth. Hsu, meanwhile, was proudly critical. He scoured Bay Area thrift stores and used book and record stores. He started a zine. For a while he thought he was into straight-edge hardcore music because it seemed to slander “anyone having too much fun”. This position sounded like a rebellion, he writes:[a] showy and disciplined zig to everyone’s zags.
Much to Hsu’s surprise, however, he soon found himself attracted to Ken. They bonded over cigarettes. They sang together on long car trips. They became unlikely friends and formed a team of like-minded students.
And then Ken was killed. In a carjacking.
Hsu became an outstanding writer and cultural critic. He has been part of the New Yorker team since 2017. The book has been in him since the senseless murder of his friend.
One of his philosophical heroes, Jacques Derrida, resisted the eulogy, notes Hsu, because “[i]It is always about “me” rather than “we”. If the author needed all these years to find a way to avoid this danger, it was worth the wait.
“Stay True” – the title comes from a signature Ken sometimes used when sending letters to his friends – is about Hsu’s coming of age, and a bit of Ken’s. But at its core, it’s about the nature of friendship and how difficult it is to maintain it. And how important it is.
He’s a wonderful writer. The South Bay of his teenage years was teeming with Asian immigrants: “bubble cafes and competing Chinese bookstores, labyrinthine parking lots with modified Hondas and moms hoping to preserve their pale complexions with full-face visors.” Children at a rave danced “like they were trying to punch out of an imaginary bag”. The beats of late 90s, No Limit era hip-hop “sounded like death rearranging furniture in the underworld”.
Above all, however, he gets us with wisdom from the distance of his friend’s tragic death. Hsu remembers trying to understand human darkness while obsessing over contemporary incidents of horrific violence, such as the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.
And then he recounts a fleeting moment when he watched as his friend, finishing a shift at his job selling children’s shoes, handed a balloon to a child. When we reach adulthood, suggests Hsu, almost everything we do is an effort to get noticed. But Ken didn’t know his friend was watching. In that moment, Hsu writes, “before the act of remembering looked desperate, I just felt lucky to witness something so kind and effortless.”
This book is a hymn to the Bay Area in the 1990s and the uncertainties of anyone just trying to fit in. It’s also, in its own quiet way, an act of kindness.
Stay Faithful: A Memoir
By Hua Hsu
(Doubleday; 208 pages; $26)
Books Inc. Berkeley features Hua Hsu in conversation with Tommy Orange: In person. 7 p.m. Nov. 3 Free. 1491 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley. www.booksinc.net/event
Green Apple Books on the Park features Hua Hsu: In person. 7 p.m. on November 4. Free. 1231 Ninth Avenue, SF www.greenapplebooks.com