Stay True
by Hua Hsu
image of Stay True book
Stay True is a memoir devoted to Hua Hsu’s late friend Ken, whom he met in college at Berkeley. Ken was randomly murdered during their junior year, and Hsu has spent the last couple of decades trying to make meaning of it. Stay True is a thesis on friendship as a whole, and Hsu explores the structure from the outside.

In his adolescent years, Hsu made a lot of zines. Just for fun. He loved researching obscure music and niche pop culture and using it as a means to figure out what his point of view was.

I thought I had a lot to say, but I felt timid about saying it. Making my zine was a way of sketching the outlines of a new self, writing a new personality into being. I was convinced I could rearrange these piles of photocopied images, short essays, and bits of cut-up paper into a version of myself that felt real and true. It was kind of a dream about what my future could hold – something that came into focus with every pun-filled, reference-packed sentence. Of course, there were many sentences I couldn’t yet write.

The zine kept him constantly formatting his interests and opinions in his head. When he left for college, it was a way to carve out a tomorrow version of who he could be in this next phase of life while the walls of self were constantly threatening to dissolve today: new home, new people, new daily routine. New friends were a way to draw him out of himself, an audience to prove this personally-curated version of himself against.

Hsu wanted to be interesting. To have a point of view on the spot. He was into being into things, and he sought this quality in others.

Hua met Ken freshman year: “He was a genre of a person I actively avoided – mainstream.” Ken challenged Hua and the version of himself he had refined. He liked music that Hua hated, wore clothes that were trendy not cool, and was in a fraternity. He challenged every point of view that Hua had spent years fostering for himself, but he was into things too. While Hua was in love with his own moral compass and niche ideas, Ken was “boisterously overfamiliar” with everything and everyone.

Hua was on a pursuit for authenticity. He wanted to be able to articulate exactly what he did or didn’t like and why. But the pursuit of authenticity, he argues, cannot happen in a vacuum. Authenticity is born in shared dialogue with others, with those who can call us out on our pretension and give us a new way of viewing things. Ken confronted Hua with the chance to strengthen all that he valued simply by being exactly who he was.

Hsu sprinkles in some philosophy on existentialism throughout the book. The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor offered new perspectives on individual identity during the mid-1990s. In the past, people were defined by their social and economic hierarchies, and this was the natural order of things. But with old-world structures gone, there’s a new question we have the opportunity to ask: what makes me myself? Answering this question is a chance to discover, create, and revise your own identity.

This was the thesis of his zine: Hua could discover, create, and revise his own person. His friendships, too, were a way to discover, create, and revise. College was just a way to chisel away at who he wanted to be. And he could help his friends do the same. Friendship was a collaborative and ongoing design project.

Their junior year, Hua visited Ken at home over winter break. After he had rolled out his sleeping bag between the foot of Ken’s bed and dresser on their last night together before flying back to school, Ken convinced him to watch Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.

I dug obscure, random things, and I wasn’t all that interested in things that were popular, especially if I had missed out on them the first time around. He promised me it would be worth it. “Let’s just watch the beginning.” I figured we would make it through the opening scene before nodding off. After about ten minutes, I was convinced that Barry Gordy’s The Last Dragon was the greatest movie ever made.

They ended up staying up all night before Hua’s early flight back to the Bay Area discussing the entire movie:

The Last Dragon was a commentary on authenticity, the porousness of identity, the joyful, postmodern possibilities of mixing and matching Asian and Black cultures! Maybe it wasn’t, but we stayed up well into morning dissecting it as though it held the key to our world. We kept saying goodnight, more of a joke than anything, and then raising one more point.

Ken taught Hua to live in subtext-mining mode. Their discussions were what brought them closer across the great divide of their interests, a process of elimination of their differences: ones that were meaningful and ones that weren’t. After Ken’s death, Hua cast a net around their friendship and began combing it for narrative. Writing became another way for him to arrange things into a pattern.

Writing offered a way to live outside the present, skipping over its textures and slowness, converting the present into language, thinking about language rather than being present at all.

Language was a way to build meaning out of Ken's death, to turn “the past into something architectural.”

To look back on how things might’ve gone differently the night Ken was murdered would be to resist the present. History is not defined by what should’ve happened, it’s defined by an objective set of events. Or as Hsu says, “to poeticize all that never transpired leads us somewhere else – not history, but faith.” But in the same way that history is fixed, the equal and opposite truth is that language can change the scope of the events, and therefore, the context in which we experience them thereafter; looking back on a finite life is a way to examine its infinity.

With Stay True, Hsu builds a raft out of his grief with his words about Ken. In his decades-long search for meaning, he instead finds a definition of what friendship is: finding the ones who help us discover, revise, and create new shapes of ourselves.