Sometimes I try to explain to my students what it felt like to be an Asian American reader in the 90s—the last decade when Asian American books from major publishers were so rare you could imagine reading them all.
My students nod politely, but don’t speak, because what they are hearing is, This is how old I am, and they are thinking, Yes.
Your generation’s nostalgia is not supposed to matter to anyone else, which is why my older colleagues aren’t interested, either, and why I might not be the right person to tell you that Stay True, Hua Hsu’s memoir of 90s Asian American student life, is gorgeous and moving and insightful and worth reading, but it is, and you should.
Cultural politics provides the book’s background and subtext, while the foreground is an intricate portrait of friendship, at an age when it has the character and intensity of a love affair. When Hua, an achingly self-aware South Bay devotee of thrifting and zines and the ego-jolt of loving an album no one’s heard of, meets Ken, a handsome, effortlessly charming, Zima-drinking frat boy from suburban San Diego, it’s an attraction of opposites, fueled by bummed cigarettes, late-night drives, and that generation-defining talisman: the mixtape.
What’s at stake in their undergraduate adventures is identity, in a mundane sense: Who am I? How do I become the person I should be? What’s left of me when you subtract parental authority? Will wearing this shirt or liking that band turn a new piece of me real and visible?
Hsu’s substantial talents somehow allow him to exaggerate the excruciating immaturity of his younger self while making it bearable, even endearing. Smart-boy self-absorption was never as cute as those toxic 80s movies with John Cusack or Christian Slater made it look, though one also senses a healthy dose of self-deprecation in Hsu’s self-portrait. When you pay attention to how others react to him, you notice that Hua isn’t quite the awkward misfit he imagines he is.
But Hsu’s narrative artistry stays true to Hua’s subjective impressions, with a patient, teacherly generosity. He narrates youthful embarrassments with restrained humor, rather than cheap laughs and cringe, with an effect something like the quiet wonder of a child gently pressing a bruise, an uncanny sensation lighting up the edges of who you are.
Identity, to repeat, is what’s at stake between Hua and Ken, and this is true, too, in the way 90s multiculturalism redefined it. A child of Taiwanese immigrants, Hua honed their curiosity about US culture to a rigorous inquiry into distinctions of status and belonging signaled by nuances of taste. From his perspective, a fourth-generation Japanese American like Ken was a creature of mystery, whose boringly mainstream preferences grant a self-assurance Hua’s aesthetic sophistication promised but couldn’t provide.
So why did Ken react with horror when his ex-girlfriend, blonde and pretty and popular, mused that her life had always been a dream? Why did he tell Hua this story, and why did their evident differences mask a commonality they felt, but needed language to explain?
The mystery between them had a name: “Asian American.” To Hua, Ken represented both the shock that assimilation might actually be possible and the recognition that it was not, his aspirational second-generation love/hate relationship with American banality. The two of them occupied the same blank space in the national imagination. Was that all they were?
Hua began taking ethnic studies classes, volunteering with Southeast Asian youth, and learning about the student movements of a generation prior. Ken founded a multicultural student group, celebrating past struggles while developing career networks. They discovered an 80s kung-fu comedy film set in Harlem, and planned an homage, starring themselves and their friends.
We didn’t have a lot of original ideas back in the 90s, and the ones that were original weren’t necessarily the ones that were good.
At least, that’s how it felt to me, a fourth-gen JA hanging out with second-gen Korean Americans in the Midwest and Brooklyn. Hsu’s narrative stays true even to the earnest fecklessness that could characterize 90s Asian American cultural politics, and maybe this more than anything else gave me that shock of representational connection I’ve heard people talk about—of seeing people like yourself depicted in print, with a generosity you never expected.
How distant all this seems! Hsu’s book is itself a reminder of how far we traveled, from what Viet Nguyen termed “narrative scarcity” in representations of Asian American life to a budding “narrative plenitude” some of us aren’t ready to trust. Greater still is the distance from the emotional defensiveness and compulsive irony of 90s youth culture to the straightforward vulnerability this book finally expresses, decades after the violent tragedy that set it in motion.
Because Ken dies.
That’s not a spoiler—it tells you on the dust jacket. But Ken’s killing is sudden, random, and inexplicable, and, hard as it is to accept, essentially meaningless.
That is, the killing belongs properly to someone else’s story, one where Ken’s identity never registers and one Hsu cannot know, just as Ken’s death means one thing to his parents, in the privacy of their grief, and quite another to the friend group at once bound and scattered by loss. The only thing all these stories have in common is Ken’s absence.
Stay True is not a portrait of a friend, but of friendship, cut short by tragedy and thereby preserved in amber, its constancy revealing your own identity in movement, receding from who you were. What haunts this book is not the spirit of the dead, but the shudder of identity, and if its second tragedy is the inevitability of its prose processing loss into metaphor, the memory of a friend smothered by layers of meaning like mother-of-pearl, the point of writing is to enact representation’s failure. What a relief to know words can’t succeed in capturing the lost beloved, who yet escapes the confines of memory.
You don’t write about loss to give it meaning, to bring back the dead or preserve them in memory. You write about loss to learn that what’s gone is gone, and to accept this with gratitude. The book’s title, once an inside joke, became the friends’ way of signing off letters: “identity” as a longing that rings in the last words you say to an absent friend before you stop speaking. Stay true.
Hua Hsu appears in conversation with Putsata Reang at Elliott Bay Books on Monday, November 7 at 7:00 PM.