Interviews New York
Hua Hsu Remembers It All
By Finlay Renwick
May 16, 2023
On a spring morning the colour of an old grey Andrew Wyeth painting, a swirling wind kicking up dead leaves and New York street detritus, we meet Hua Hsu at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighbourhood. The writer is easily recognisable, a shock of straight black hair, his face framed by round tortoiseshell glasses. After some smalltalk about the weather, the strangeness of Prince Harry's just-released memoir, and trousers, "You spend years trying to find the right pants," says Hsu, we find ourselves by a shelf stocked with copies of his 2022 book: Stay True, an orange and yellow cover punctuated by a gauzy film photograph of a young man in a white t-shirt, face obscured by a camera that points back towards the viewer, who remains out of sight.
Hsu picks one up, looking, for a brief moment, slightly surprised to see it there. “It was weird to see it for the first time,” he says quietly.
“It remains weird.”
In early May it was announced that Stay True had won the Pulitzer Prize for memoir, the jury calling it “an elegant and poignant coming of age account that considers intense, youthful friendships but also random violence that can suddenly and permanently alter the presumed logic of our personal narratives.”
It’s a book – spare, nostalgic, searching, cut through with humour – that charts what life was like growing up in 80s and 90s California as the first generation son of Taiwanese parents. The pretensions of trying to be cool and trying to connect; making DIY zines that might never be read; spending Friday nights logged into AOL chatrooms, and late-night drives to donut shops, a car packed with friends singing over each other to The Beach Boys. “I was an American child, and I was bored, and I was searching for my people.”
At college in Berkley, Hsu meets Ken, a Japanese American who was everything that he wasn’t: Confident, athletic, into Abercrombie & Fitch varsity jackets, Pearl Jam and attending frat parties. “The first time I met Ken I hated him. I was eighteen, in love with my moral compass, perpetually suspicious of anyone whose words came too easily.”
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Hsu and Ken become friends, an intimacy that is compounded by hammy martial arts movies and meandering conversations, smoking cigarettes on other people’s balconies. And then Ken is killed in a carjacking after a party, a senseless tragedy that marks Hsu and the friends in his orbit indelibly.
It’s Ken holding the camera on the book’s cover. Stay True is shorthand for 'Stay true to the game,' which was how Ken would sign off his emails in those early internet days.
“I started writing things down in the immediate aftermath,” says Hsu as we walk towards nowhere in particular, the wind still churning as the grey morning gives way to pale sunshine. “I didn’t think that it would become a book until much later. Writing was just how I was able to process what was happening.”
One of Hsu’s many gifts as a writer and a memoirist is to recall the details, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. The songs, the clothes, the banality of youth. The book is interspersed with personal ephemera from that period – a scattering of black and white photos, zoomed in and distorted: a 7-Eleven sign, a figure standing on rocks along a shoreline, the fuzzy outline of young men laughing in a dorm room, along with scans of faxes from his father, who returns to Taiwan for work. “That’s the dilemma of life: you have to find meaning, but by the same time, you have to accept the reality," he imparts to his son in one exchange.
"Our family has a collective… maybe not a problem, but a condition where we keep a lot of things,” says Hsu. “No one intended to keep all of the faxes, we just kept them. They were in a file along with phone bills from 1984 that serve no purpose. I only found the faxes 4-5 years ago and they radically altered the perception of my father.
"This sweater that I’m wearing, I still have clothes from high school. This idea of keeping things around has a sort of talismanic power to me, and is part of how I understand culture.”
"My dad had no sense that he was doing any of the things I projected onto him," says Hsu about his father's communication style. "He didn’t know that he was quote-unquote being present. He think it’s hilarious that he’s this breakout star. We got into an argument recently and he was like, ‘You’ll have to write another book now!’"
We turn a corner onto a leafy street lined with brownstones. “Is it fun to come out and do this? It seems like a lot of work?," he asks. We stop by a corner bathed in sunlight. As well as being an author, Hsu is a staff writer at The New Yorker and teaches at Bard College in Hudson, NY. “I can no longer keep track of what’s cool. I’m 45, but I find it fascinating to dissect what they think is cool. It’s interesting, but I feel no investment in it whatsoever."
After discussing the many joys of a late night at The Corner Bistro, “I think one of my greatest achievements was befriending the doorman there, who would slip us in the back,” and the difference between a bar and a pub – we land on it being the involvement of the person who serves the drinks, and how the furniture is arranged – we turn back towards the bookshop. Was writing it cathartic? A story that he's been working on across 20 years...
"I associate catharsis with a sudden lifting of feeling," says Hsu, who despite having lived in New York for more than a decade still has California in his accent and mannerisms. Mellow, measured.
"It was more like an experience where I felt really changed afterwards, like I understood certain things that I didn’t beforehand."
"Catharsis is a moment of release that I didn't feel until much, much later."