• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of Stay True: A Memoir by Hua Hsu

Hsu's memoir remembers his friend Ken, who was tragically killed during college. He reflects on friendship and on their connection, challenges, and revelations.

Friendship is about the willingness to know, rather than be known.

Eighteen-year-old Hua Hsu reveled in his uniqueness. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he enjoyed making 'zines, searching for vintage records, and making sure he felt different from mainstream teens.

Ken, Japanese American in a family that had lived the United States for generations, favored Dave Matthews Band and Abercrombie and Fitch and was in a fraternity. In Hua's view, Ken was as mainstream as they came.

Yet the two bonded and became close in the way that college friends do--through making mix tapes, taking road trips, hanging out, taking up smoking and having deep conversations on the balcony, developing inside jokes, plotting out a film starring the two of them, and developing a shared passion for a movie (in this case, The Last Dragon).

Friendship rests on the presumption of reciprocity, or drifting in and out of one another's lives, with occasional moments of wild intensity. When you're nineteen or twenty, your life is governed by debts and favors, promises to pick up the check or drive next time around. We built our lives into a set of mutual agreements, a string of small gifts lobbed back and forth. Life happened within that delay.

But several years later, just a few hours after Hua was at his party, Ken was killed in a carjacking. Hua was left reeling. He wrote Hua's eulogy, then began writing what became Stay True in order to cope with his loss, explore the concept of belonging, face his own grief, and memorialize his friend.

Over the course of many years, the author sorted through his feelings and memories, cherishing a folder filled with touchstones of their friendship, and he wrote. He wondered what would have become of their friendship if Ken hadn't died. He accepted the illogical nature of the horrifying crime. He went to grad school, he went to therapy, and he began to let go of the guilt surrounding the idea that he might have somehow saved his friend.

I received an electronic prepublication edition of this book courtesy of Doubleday Books and NetGalley.

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Hua Hsu is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He says in Stay True's acknowledgments, "I've been writing this for over twenty years."