The murder of a college friend lies at the heart of Hua Hsu’s memoir “Stay True.” The friend, referred to in the book only as Ken, was shot dead at 20 years old in Vallejo, Calif., early one Sunday morning in July 1998, after a party in Berkeley. It was “a freak occurrence,” an inept robbery that devolved into violence, and Ken’s assailants were quickly apprehended and jailed. Hsu describes both the buildup and the aftermath with devastating emotional precision, questioning the possibility of meaning in tragedy and the value of the stories we tell while attempting to find it. It is a thoughtful, affecting book.
When an editor at the college paper suggests that Ken, a Japanese American, might have been the victim of a hate crime, Hsu initially rejects the idea. “I was mostly upset that my colleague had tried to slot Ken’s death into a broader context,” he writes, “one beyond my understanding and control. I was unwilling to relinquish him to some greater cause.” As he finds himself drawn to news of other violent murders, though — killings often apparently catalyzed by bigotry — the narrative becomes harder to resist. But can the label hate crime, even if accurate, ever be sufficient — or is it just an attempt to comprehend and contain the unfathomable?
This question occasions for Hsu a reckoning with the nuances and contradictions of Asian American identity, a major theme in the book. He was born in Illinois to Taiwanese parents who didn’t see the point in identifying as “Asian American”: His father “referred to himself as ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental,’” and besides, they “hadn’t even planned on becoming Americans.” They kept one foot in Taiwan and raised their son in Chinese-speaking communities, bequeathing to him the “telos of self-improvement baked into the immigrant experience.”
Young Hua, though, was ineluctably American. In Texas as a child, he begged for cowboy boots; as a teenager, he loved Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana. He was keenly aware of an urge to forge his own identity, his youthful zine-making “a way of sketching the outlines of a new self, writing a new personality into being.”
Ken’s experience and demeanor could scarcely have been more different. “The first time I met Ken,” Hsu writes, “I hated him.” He was confident, good-looking, easygoing in a way that was alien to Hsu. He was a poster boy for assimilation: White girlfriend, fraternity brother, patron of Abercrombie & Fitch; “a genre of person I actively avoided — mainstream.”
In the grand tradition of unlikely friends, Hsu slowly loosens up and gains some of Ken’s confidence while Ken comes to understand his friend’s distrust of mainstream culture.
Was Ken’s killing racially motivated? In the end, it didn’t seem to be the case. And besides, the hate-crime narrative, though it seemed to offer a simple explanation, was ultimately inadequate to the grief and the need for meaning felt by those left behind. For Hsu, this need sought any available outlet: “In those first few days,” he writes, “everything assumed a talismanic significance.” He saw omens in the scores of baseball games, in the flies that seemed ubiquitous the week of Ken’s funeral.
As it happened, the killers’ arraignment occurred the same week as the Columbine massacre, another occasion when explanations were everywhere sought but nowhere to be found. “I didn’t understand the point in offering them the privilege of narrative,” Hsu writes of the Columbine killers. “I was more fixated on the paths that had come to an end.”
As his father tells him by way of comfort, after Kurt Cobain’s suicide: “That’s the dilemma of life: you have to find meaning, but by the same time, you have to accept the reality. How to handle the contradiction is a challenge to everyone of us.”
While the murder is the crux of the book, “Stay True” also succeeds as a wry chronicle of the insecurities of youth. Late adolescence is recalled as a time of vivid memory-making, of earnest, intense identification with art and friends. The thrill of creating new rituals, codes and mixtapes is as yet untroubled by the knowledge that they won’t last. Simple pleasures develop totemic significance: a private signal to duck out for a smoke, a friendly Secret Santa tradition (or rather, “Secret Non-Denominational Winter Holiday Gift Giver”). With warmth and humor, Hsu evokes the precocity of college life: “We stayed up so late, possessed by delirium, that we came up with a theory of everything, only we forgot to write it down.”
For all the soul-searching, therapeutic work and years of rumination imprinted on “Stay True,” it’s the ache of a friendship lost but honored that will linger for readers. Though Hsu claims, self-deprecatingly, that the term “good friend … only occasionally applies to me,” the lasting effect of “Stay True” is that of an extraordinary, devotional act of friendship.
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.
By Hua Hsu
Doubleday. 208 pp. $26
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