When we connect by phone for this interview, New York-based writer Hua Hsu is visiting his parents in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s in his childhood bedroom, which is still filled with items from his past, such as band posters that date back to the 1990s. He’s looking at a stack of old rave flyers as we talk and mentions that one has little information on it save for a phone number.
“It’s so great that I have no recollection of who was there or anything, but there’s this phone number,” says Hsu.
In his memoir, “Stay True,” published on September 27 by Doubleday, Hsu takes readers back to the 1990s. He recounts his Bay Area adolescence as a budding music fan who connected with his father, then living in Taiwan for work, via fax. He writes of his friendships made at UC Berkeley in the latter half of the decade. In particular, he delves into his friendship with Ken, a student from Southern California with whom Hsu forms a strong bond in spite of their superficial differences. In 1998, the summer before the start of Hsu’s senior year, Ken was murdered.
“To be honest, I felt like I needed to start writing stuff down as soon as things happened, back in ’98,” says Hsu. In fact, he says, the first thing he did after hearing about Ken’s death was buy a journal. He jotted down inside jokes and wrote letters to his late friend. It was something intended for his own memories.
“I tend to be kind of a pack rat, a hoarder. I guess I’m also that way with memories too,” Hsu admits. “I just never wanted to forget anything.”
Writing was a form of comfort. “I remember back then just thinking there are certain textures or smells or moments that I wanted to write down,” he says. “When I was able to, it felt very serene to do that despite the total chaos around us.”
Hsu became a journalist — he’s a staff writer for The New Yorker — and kept up with the journal-like writing a few times a year in a document that moved from one computer to the next as time passed.
“It didn’t really feel like a book, honestly, until my agent sort of persuaded me into seeing it as a book,” he says.
After receiving a fellowship, Hsu spent months focused specifically on this project, but the result, which he describes as more of a “brain dump,” was twice the length of “Stay True.”
“It started to feel more like a book once I took out all the stuff that I wanted to keep to myself and cut it down to the length that it is now,” he says.
Hsu adds that writing this story as a memoir came with challenges. “I think the challenge for me was balancing the sadness that I felt for many years with this later revelation that, in order to really represent a friendship, it has to be joyful and it has to recall the good times too,” he says.
“I think that, for many years, I thought that to write this story from my perspective, it would only be relentlessly sad,” Hsu continues. “While it is very sad, I wanted to represent the full texture of who Ken and other people in our lives were at that time. It wasn’t something that I realized until I sat down to write it.”
Another challenge: Exploring a past that, while not so distant, is so technologically different from today. “I feel like it’s sometimes difficult to tell someone what the past was like, your past, without them assuming that you’re making some moral argument about how much better things used to be,” says Hsu, who is also a professor at Bard.
“Even though I obviously love my friends and we shared this moment that has kept us connected, even though there were aspects of that past that I look upon fondly, I don’t really need a reader to feel that way,” he says. “I just want a reader to know the texture of being bored was different back then, or the texture of how much of the world you could slip into was totally different. It’s not better or worse.”
Hsu mentions that the previous night, he came across a photo of a band that played at a friend’s party.
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“Nowadays, you would just be able to keep in touch with them or you would have a name to look up, but it’s this moment that’s completely lost to time,” he says. “I like the mystery of having no clue who these guys were who showed up and played in my friend’s living room.”
With “Stay True,” Hsu is exploring his own life through the fragments of memory and mementos that remain. “I think that a lot of the book is trying to understand things that I didn’t understand at the time and looking at all these clues, maybe clues that I left for myself, stuff that I held onto,” he says. “Ultimately, how much can you really recover? How much can you really know?”