As a writer for The New Yorker, Hua Hsu looks deeply into the worlds of others. Now, in the memoir Stay True, he turns the lens inwards, reflecting on the devastating effects of the 1998 kidnapping and murder of his friend.By Leah Jing McIntosh.
Writer Hua Hsu
Hua Hsu approaches criticism with a refreshing tenderness. Refusing the hatchet, The New Yorker critic prefers a more careful mode. He explains his approach: “There was a moment when I realised that I could not come up with disruptive theories for how the world should be … My ability is more one where I can connect different conversations, or connect different worlds.” And so he does, connecting Paul Beatty with Kendrick Lamar with W. E. B. Du Bois; elsewhere, he swerves between George Michael’s death and Maggie Lee’s film Mommy and the International Community Radio Taipei. Drawing such constellations, he makes clear that he, too, is simply another node.
“I’m always trying to bring a kind of humility into the work where I’m like, I don’t actually know the answers. Hopefully you can take something out of this and see beyond me.”
Sometimes it feels like Hsu is piecing together something else, something bigger and just beyond the page – his criticism not a detour but rather the only way through. This mood comes across when he writes on Diamanda Galás’s album All the Way: “The past isn’t an escape from the present.” It appears on the edges of an essay on Trump’s presidency: “We rise to meet circumstances that we may never have foreseen. This is the only thing that steadies me.” Or, in the last two lines of a piece on the murder of Vincent Chin: “It could have been any one of us. It can be all of us, together.” In a careful pivot, he leaves two shadows of possibility, each stretching forth.
Hsu’s work is imbued with a momentum that never ends at the critical object but rather opens it up to the world. He remarks, “I actually don’t think anyone should like what I like. I just want you to see the world a little bit differently.”
Reviewing the book The Next Next Level, Hsu wondered, “Why don’t we write tributes to our friends?” A few years later, he wrote on Jacques Derrida’s lectures on friendship. Hsu’s final paragraphs often return to a careful intimacy. This essay is no different; he writes that Derrida evokes “all the intimacies, shared over cigarettes and alcohol, on the edge of a tomb, which I had once tried to forget. Wounds of a different sort, the ecstasy of having once felt known.”
Hsu’s second book explores such psychic wounds. Stay True: A Memoir traces his friendship with Ken Ishida, a fellow student at the University of California, Berkeley, who was senselessly murdered in 1998. “We laughed so hard we thought we’d die,” Hsu writes in the opening pages. “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 a while, you were convinced that you would one day write the saddest story ever.”
Instead, Hsu published zines, edited a student magazine, wrote undergraduate essays, penned a eulogy. He graduated from Berkeley in the late 1990s, and then from Harvard a decade later. He wrote cultural criticism for Slate, The Atlantic, The Wire. He got married, had a kid, became an associate professor at Vassar College, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is now a professor at Bard College. A few years ago, he began to write Stay True. But it isn’t the saddest story ever.
“Terrible things happen to people all the time,” Hsu says. The book “isn’t necessarily meant to be about him [Ken] or me. It’s about this period of time in life – being young, in your late teens, early 20s. It’s about a period of time – where boredom and our relationship to culture was very different than it is now.”
Hsu admits in Stay True, “The first time I met Ken, I hated him.” Ishida is a handsome frat boy who loves Dave Matthews Band; Hsu wears an “audible amount of corduroy” and aims for a cool condescension.
“He projected confidence. I found confident people suspicious.” But they begin a tentative friendship, marked with secret handshakes, inside jokes, banal intimacies. It is, for the first hundred pages, a book about growing up in the ’90s, about the thrill of being known, of staying in the car until the mixtape ends.
The book hums in anticipation of a future yet to come, written from a future that Ishida will never see. In 1998, he was abducted, locked into the boot of his own car, driven to an alleyway in Vallejo, where he was murdered by strangers. Stay True is cleaved by this death and in the second half of the book, witness to such devastation, it’s impossible not to feel cleaved, too. As Hsu writes:
“The day after Ken died, I stopped listening to songs from a specific zone of memory, avoided vibrations that reminded me of a certain register of feeling. […] Mostly, I became obsessed with the possibility of a sentence that could wend its way backward. I picked up a pen and tried to write myself back into the past.”
Hsu was 21 when Ishida was murdered. For years, he was captured by scenes and moments from his past, “obsessed with thinking about and revisiting and trying to find language for them”. Yet he struggled to see a narrative thread. “I knew that it was something I always wanted to do, but that I would never give myself time to just kind of go there.”
It makes sense, then, that the memoir was at first distilled, then maximal. “First, I wrote a seven-page version of it, which I thought was perfect. And I thought, there’s nothing more … then I went overboard and wrote 110,000 words.”
This longer manuscript was “kind of everything”. It was something he needed to write, but, he explains, “maybe not a story that would be useful for anyone to read”. His agent told him to cut it by a third.
A fellowship at New York Public Library gave him time and space to write. “As a Cullman Fellow,” he explains, “you’re compelled to write. You have to show up – if you don’t show up for consecutive days, you have to explain why you’re not there.”
Fellows are allowed to enter the library two hours before the public, so Hsu would turn up at 7am each day to write, “when nobody else was in the office, because I think I found what I was writing to be deeply embarrassing”.
Hsu’s first book, A Floating Chinaman (2016), is an academic monograph that circles around the Chinese–American avant-garde writer H. T. Tsiang (1899-1971), whose work was spurned by American publishers. It is through Tsiang’s lack of legacy that Hsu untangles how “suspicion and stereotype, careful scholarship and rushed mistranslation” altered the perception of China in the American imaginary. Tsiang’s relegation to the margins epitomises the racism that still pervades American literature today.
The memoir, as a form, presumes the authority of the first-person narrator. Hsu grappled with situating himself within this position: “One of the reasons it took me a long time to start this was not having any models for how to write in the first person as an immigrant, or as an Asian American.”
In Stay True he explicitly references this dilemma: “A simple pronoun of ‘I’ or ‘we’, a first-person perspective, all of it seemed mysterious. We could never write in a way that assumed anyone knew where we were coming from. […] Neither Black nor white, just boring to everyone on the outside. Where do you even begin explaining yourself?”
It was through fiction that Hsu found a way to overcome this bind. Referencing Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, he notes that fiction “is so much about the appearance of transparency, but there’s so much more going on. It welcomes you in – yet keeps you at arm’s length.” Hsu’s memoir is intimate, but there is a magnificent sense of control in his prose. Where he often appears only at the edges of his criticism, relegating himself to the final paragraph, Hsu finally brings himself fully to the page.
Only in the aftermath of Ishida’s death did Hsu begin to take writing seriously. In the face of such loss, he explains in the book that writing became “a way to loot and hoard in a city on fire, to impose structure on chaos, to download the contents of a storage drive before it succumbed to corruption”.
Such desires – to loot, to download, to save – resonate beyond writing. On the podcast Popcast, Hsu speaks about a shared obsession with collecting. But, as he makes clear to the host, Jon Caramanica, a pop music critic for The New York Times, “I don’t think we’re going to be talking about stuff; we’re going to be talking about life, the meaning of life, the past – what makes work meaningful.”
Of his old office at Vassar, he admits, “Some would describe it as a wasteland, I would describe it more as a future museum, of ’90s and 2000s culture.”
Hsu has amassed many collections – books, records, tapes – and tells me, “If I’m walking down the street and I see someone’s old mixtape or mix CD I’ll definitely pick it up.”
He also collects old photographs of Asian Americans: “My parents lost a bunch of photographs from when they had just come to the United States. I’ve always dreamed of recovering them, randomly coming across them. It’s totally impossible. But it would be incredible, right?” This impossibility tinged with hope, held in a desire to collect, seems to anchor his work. In A Floating Chinaman, Hsu writes, “a history of failure is an index of what once seemed impossible”.
To coincide with the launch of Stay True, he made extensive, interlinked webpages filled with digital detritus, returning to his origins as a zinemaker enamoured with counterculture. Initially, you could only gain access by receiving a hand-addressed postcard. One page features snippets of AOL chats; if clicked, a chat links to a recording of Hsu hosting a radio show in 1997. Another page is filled with old postcards of Berkeley, which link to a curated selection of YouTube videos, including a recording of Stokely Carmichael’s historic “Black Power” speech at University of California, Berkeley. Hsu explains that the pages are meant to replicate early web browsing. “Limited interface, or the possible mystery – things you can discover if you just click around.”
He also made an accompanying Spotify playlist, titled “expressway to yr finals week [1995-1998]”, filled with music that punctuates the memoir: Chuck Berry, Nirvana, Fugees, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian, among others. Conspicuously absent from the playlist is The Beach Boys.
In grief, the strangest of things accumulate new resonances, and Hsu delineates this shift with care. Throughout Stay True, Hsu writes of car trips. Ishida leads the car in singalongs and, listening to his friends sing “God Only Knows” together, Hsu begins to understand something new about music, something brilliant, in the “chorus of nonbelievers, channeling god. A harmonic coming together capable of overtaking lyrics about drift and catastrophe, a song as proof that people can work together”.
After Ishida dies, Hsu finds he can’t listen to the song anymore. So, the omission in the playlist is not unexpected. But I cannot help returning to his initial revelation – that the sacredness of the song was not in its lyrics, or in the vibration of voices, or in its provenance. It was something, instead, beyond: “Maybe it wasn’t in the song so much as in the repeated listenings, these memories stacking on top of one another.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "The critic as artist".
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