New Yorker writer Hua Hsu on his coming of age memoir 'Stay True'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Hua Hsu was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last week for his memoir "Stay True." We spoke with the author when his book came out in September. It opens with a gorgeous evocation of young Berkeley students driving around and coming of age, with Hua Hsu alongside his best friend, Ken.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
HUA HSU: (Reading) At that age, time moves slow. You're eager for something to happen - passing time in parking lots, hands deep in your pockets, trying to figure out where to go next. Life happened elsewhere. It was simply a matter of finding a map that led there. Or maybe at that age, time moves fast. You're so desperate for action that you forget to remember things as they happen. A day felt like forever. A year was a geological era. We laughed so hard we thought we'd die. We cycled through legendary infatuations sure to devastate us for the rest of our lives. For a while, you were convinced that you would one day write the saddest story ever.
SIMON: Hua Hsu, who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker and a teacher at Bard College, joins us from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.
HSU: It's a delight to be here, Scott.
SIMON: Please tell us about Ken. What you notice first when you introduce him to us is the differences.
HSU: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I was a typical sort of '90s alternative person. You know, like, I really prized the clothes I wore and sort of my unusual taste in music. And when I arrived at Berkeley in 1995, I was seeking out people who were exactly like me. And Ken was very different. You know, he was really confident, a sort of conventionally handsome Japanese American dude from San Diego. He was in a frat. These are all things that I sort of disavowed as uncool. And so when we initially met, I didn't really think we'd be friends, let alone friends who ended up, you know, sharing a lot of sort of intimate dreams and hopes with one another.
SIMON: What do you think drew you to each other? Could it have been partly those differences?
HSU: I can only speak for myself. I was a very immature person, and so I think it's more a product of him being kind of open-minded, curious and kind. You know, the first time we actually hung out - not me judging him from a distance - was when he asked me to help him buy some vintage clothes for a party his fraternity was throwing. And, you know, I think he was just really curious what made me tick, you know, why I stood the way I stood, why I was insistent on ordering the weirdest thing on the menu, why I listened to the music I listened to.
SIMON: We're going to play a song for you now. And tell us what it calls up in you. I bet you can guess which one.
HSU: I actually can't.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD ONLY KNOWS")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I may not always love you. But long as there are stars above you, you never need to doubt it. I'll make you so sure about it...
SIMON: You write about this song at length.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD ONLY KNOWS")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) God only knows what I'd be...
HSU: Yeah, it's, you know, "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. You know, it's a song that I got into in college. Like, I just read an article about it, and I sought it out. And it was as good as the article said. And, you know, initially, I was really just drawn to how perfectly symmetrical it was. There was just such a beautiful harmony. It expressed this kind of yearning and hope that I secretly wanted in my own life.
You know, I think I prized myself in being sort of sarcastic and not expecting much from the world. And it's a song that I listened to a lot with my friends, Ken among them. And so, you know, hearing it just now, whenever I listen to it, I think back to these late-night drives to get donuts we would take and how all of my friends would insist on singing along to it, which I found horrifying because it's just such a perfect song on its own, and my friends are not particularly strong singers.
But, you know, after Ken's passing, you know, after the nature of our school group friendship changed, like, I really yearned for that sense of harmony again. And I found it actually quite haunting afterwards, this idea that something that felt so beautiful and hopeful at one point in your life could all of a sudden feel almost mocking, you know, just this - this beauty no longer feels so beautiful anymore.
SIMON: Oh. This is going to be hard to talk about. One day, you and your friends realized that you hadn't heard from Ken.
HSU: Mmm hmm.
SIMON: Could you bring us back to that time?
HSU: Of course. It was the summer between our junior and senior years, at least for most of us. And we felt like our futures were in sight somewhat, you know, just the - graduation's around the corner. And Ken had moved into this apartment. He was throwing a housewarming party. And I left in the middle of his party to go to a different party. The following day, he'd failed to show up to work. And then, on Monday, we realized that he had actually been killed over the weekend.
And I couldn't stop thinking about, you know, leaving in the middle of his party, like, leaving in the middle of our cigarette, leaving in the middle of this conversation, and even driving by his apartment later that night and later wondering if it had happened by then or sort of whether I had accidentally driven by, you know, his abduction 'cause he was carjacked. Our friends - you know, we all just sort of took care of one another and took care of ourselves as best we could. But, you know, we were all in very uncharted waters without, really, a sense of what possible routes there were.
SIMON: Yeah. Your friend Ken died in a carjacking. And unfortunately, we probably need to specify in 2022, it wasn't a hate crime.
HSU: It's an interesting question because even at that time, you know, in the fall of 1998 when we all went back to college, I was editing this Asian American campus paper. And we actually had a conversation on staff. Other folks didn't know him, but they'd read about it. And they wondered if we should write about it or sort of investigate it as a hate crime. You know, there is this sort of broader philosophical question perhaps. Like, it's sort of hard not to see people through their kind of racialized identity. So who really knows what goes through the mind of a perpetrator? But according to them, it was a completely random crime. Like, it just seemed like a robbery that sort of, for whatever reason, spiraled into something much worse.
SIMON: Yeah. Is Ken in your writing even now?
HSU: You know, I've been working on this in some form for over 20 years. And during that period of time, I've written a lot of journalism and criticism, nothing that actually touched on this. But I think the sensations I seek in music, culture, literature, politics - I think there has always been this hope, this humoring of utopian possibilities, that actually goes back to this moment in which I was trying to repair the world through writing, you know, in those initial days after his death.
HSU: I think he still will always show up in my desire to kind of imagine a different future than the one we have now because I think, for so long, that was the question that drove me, you know, this question of the futures that never came.
SIMON: Hua Hsu - his memoir, "Stay True" - thank you so much for being with us.
HSU: Scott, thank you so much for this conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.