“Just tell me what you saw this morning in two lines,” the poet Marie Howe said, in an interview conducted by the American journalist and author Kristen Tippett. “I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult, because you actually have to endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. ”
In his gentle, tragic memoir “Stay True,” the New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu reflects on his time studying at Berkeley College, which was disrupted in his senior year by the murder of his best friend Ken. Although their relationship only lasted for a mere three years, in that brief period of time Ken had challenged all of Hsu’s previously held notions about good taste, intellectualism, and authenticity.
Upon first glance, Hsu and Ken couldn’t be more different. Hsu was a self-identified “straight edge,” rejecting alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes in alignment with a hard-core punk subculture that was in vogue at the time, and also turned his nose up to any art that could be seen as mainstream, particularly “Pearl Jam” and “Nirvana.” He thrifted his clothes, wearing “cardigans, floral button-downs, an audible amount of corduroy, [and] Dr. Martens five-eye wingtips,” and poured a copious amount of his free time into curating a zine whose collection of images and essays ostensibly captured his truest self. A rebel and moral purist, he much preferred a night at home studying Marxist theory to attending any of the ragers that were happening on campus.
Meanwhile, Ken was “flagrantly handsome,” and “his voice betrayed no insecurity.” Disregarding the fact that he was Japanese-American, his life up until then seemed to exist in an idyllic, all-American haven: he had a “white and blond and conventionally pretty” girlfriend at home, and at college he was a part of a fraternity, in which he was expected to one day inherit a leadership position. The biggest offense, though, was being “mainstream”: not only did he wear the “ruggedly generic” contemporary fashion of subtly-colored polos, baggy jeans, and Timberlands, but he listened to —prepare yourself—“Pearl Jam,” shamelessly.
Another significant difference that Hsu mentioned was the difference in their racial backgrounds: although both were considered “Asian,” Hsu was born to Taiwanese immigrants, while Ken’s Japanese-American family had lived in the United States for several generations. While Hsu felt that it was his lot in life to set himself apart from dominant American culture, Ken had never felt this same inclination.
However, the differences ended there for the most part. The first time that Ken and Hsu hung out, it was because Ken wanted Hsu’s help shopping for his fraternity’s 1970s party. “…I was surprised, even impressed, by Ken, since he was clearly more perceptive than I’d initially thought,” Hsu reflected. “He noticed intentionality where others might have guessed I could only afford mismatched, multigenerational hand-me-downs.”
Hsu described their trip that afternoon in simple but robust details, unbroken by internal observations or symbolism. “He was a young man, I was an old one, and now we were sorting through secondhand polyester shirts, blazers of the deceased, dust everywhere as we shook open every new marvel,” he wrote. “‘I’m afraid to rub my eyes,’ he said, and I softened to him. I helped him pick out a shiny yellow shirt with ostentatious lapels. When he looked in the mirror, he affected a sad face, as though this shirt were leaching away his natural aura. It was perfect.”
So many of Hsu’s descriptions are made poignant by their photographic quality, which brings attention to what he chooses to provide the reader and what he retains for himself. Notably, the reader is never told Ken’s full name; moreover, while photographs are included throughout—of scenery, objects, and people—we are never furnished with a picture of him. Instead, Hua Hsu teases our imagination by providing descriptions of photos without their accompanying images. “There’s a photo where I’m squatting down like a catcher, pensively looking for seashells. Ken stands behind, leaning over me and waving gaily to the camera. He wears a flannel-lined navy blue jacket, tastefully baggy jeans, and brown boots. In another picture, he’s perched coolly on a tall rock…he’s affecting a debonair look, while I’m leaning next to him with a goofy smile.” The photos are described in such minute detail that it is almost criminal that an actual image of them is not presented; it’s as if Hsu implies that though this is his story to share, some of these moments will remain only for himself and those that knew Ken in real life.
“Later, when photography became ubiquitous, pictures were evidence that you existed at all, day in and day out,” Hsu wrote. “They registered a pattern. Looking back, you began to doubt the sequence of events. If, in the absence of proof, anything had happened at all.” While such musings may seem trite, they capture an essential theme of this book: for the detailed recordings that Hsu provides of his friendship with Ken, they are just memories. Though they can structure a life, they can just as easily abandon it to chaos. However, they ultimately remain one of the only credible methods of verifying a reality, or specifically a relationship, that you can’t return to: which is what happens to Hsu, when Ken is killed in a car-jacking.
According to Hsu, his last memories of Ken had been tinged with annoyance, and he’d been in a hurry to leave the party which they had both attended. In those three years of friendship, Hsu had learned a lot about his friend, and watched him change: Ken introduced him to The Last Dragon, which he thought would be an crude action film but was instead a thoughtful commentary on the relationship between African American and Asian culture as well as the fluidity of identity. Since both were devoted to ritual, they spent a lot of their quality time outside on the balcony, indicating a desire to be alone together with the words, “I need a smoke.” On their last smoke together, Hsu wrote that “we smoked with a normal sense of ritualistic purpose. We were serious about being serious. I imagined smoking many cigarettes on this balcony in the year to come.” Soon after, they were interrupted by some of their friends. Hsu wrote, “We were in the middle of something and then we weren’t…I still needed advice, but I told Ken we’d resume this smoke later.”
Afterward, barring his funeral, Hsu’s references to Ken acquire a magical and similarly disenchanted quality. Hsu remembers that he “was sitting on Sammi’s bed, rolling a joint, and Gwen asked me, were you and Ken really that close?…I panicked. I didn’t know what to say…maybe I misremembered a lot along the way. Or a little thing was replayed in my mind so often that it hardened into the memory of having once been a routine. I knew she was wrong—that our friendship was staged in private, on balconies, in cars, walking in search of pizza. But how could I ever be sure?”
His moments of reprieve were also brief and unsatisfactory, occurring to him in dreams and images. Most disturbing was at Ken’s funeral, when “a fly landed on his cheek. I waved my hand, nearly touching him, yet it stayed put, as though taunting me. The fly terrified me—were all these omens and signs real? I became convinced all these flies were somehow him, buzzing around and messing with me, and I let out a hysterical laugh.”
As Hsu and his friends struggled to make sense of their friend’s death in a broader or at least more intelligible context, photographs failed. What was once a coherent story deteriorates upon closer inspection.
Toward the end of his life, Ken had turned more serious, looking forward to adult life with a maturity and intention that even Hsu struggled to emulate. Although Ken’s future was cut short, Hsu’s path from Berkely has been nothing short of exceptional: now, Hsu is a staff writer at the New Yorker where he promotes and critiques Asian-American art, in addition to other articles about culture and personal history. His memoir Stay True complicates his articles on art, and illuminates the roots of his open-mindedness toward it through his short-lived but unforgettable relationship with his best friend.
“We continue to know our friend, even after they are no longer present to look back at us,” Hsu wrote, in a rare philosophical aside. “From that very first encounter, we are always preparing for the eventuality that we might outlive them, or they us…this isn’t meant to be sad. To love friendship… ‘one must love the future.’”