ebook & audiobook
In the eyes of eighteen-year-old Hua Hsu, the problem with Ken—with his passion for Dave Matthews, Abercrombie & Fitch, and his fraternity—is that he is exactly like everyone else. Ken, whose Japanese American family has been in the United States for generations, is mainstream; for Hua, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, who makes ’zines and haunts Bay Area record shops, Ken represents all that he defines himself in opposition to. The only thing Hua and Ken have in common is that, however they engage with it, American culture doesn’t seem to have a place for either of them.Summary
But despite his first impressions, Hua and Ken become friends, a friendship built on late-night conversations over cigarettes, long drives along the California coast, and the successes and humiliations of everyday college life. And then violently, senselessly, Ken is gone, killed in a carjacking, not even three years after the day they first meet.
Determined to hold on to all that was left of one of his closest friends—his memories—Hua turned to writing. Stay True is the book he’s been working on ever since. A coming-of-age story that details both the ordinary and extraordinary, Stay True is a bracing memoir about growing up, and about moving through the world in search of meaning and belonging.
- academia (uc berkeley)
- gun violence
- sexual violence
- child abuse
- drug use
I went into this book knowing only that it was written by a former UC Berkeley student (like myself), and that it followed his time there and the death of his best friend in his junior year. I’d heard good things about it, and some trusted friends had read it and enjoyed it.
First, due to no fault of the book itself, but rather its marketing: the book contained much more violence than the summary portrays. Ken’s death was a violent, and more prolonged, murder than the book jacket has one believe. I think this is important to know before going into the book.
My personal experience of reading this book was not as enjoyable as I would have liked, but I don’t think that’s due to any fault within the book – which is why I still rated it very highly.
That said, I’ll start out with why it lost a star in my rating: there were multiple sections of the book that confused me and took me out of the story. The memoir was filled with personal storytelling, as well as philosophical and cultural commentary, and sometimes this commentary got a bit too convoluted or confusing for me. I found myself taking breaks to re-center myself and/or being surprised at the transition back to the personal stories. It wasn’t too distracting, but enough to make the experience of reading/listening to the book less enjoyable.
On to the personal experience: As I mentioned, I attended UC Berkeley – the school that this book is centered around – and I had, to say the least, a traumatic time there. This period was filled with grief for me, much of it exacerbated or caused by institutions within the school. That said, I didn’t foresee how difficult and triggering it would be for me to read a book that was also about someone facing an unimaginably traumatic experience as a student at the same school. Even more, I didn’t expect how much it would hurt to read the first section of the book about Hsu living a traditional college experience – something that was taken away from me by a life changing accident in my first year. The vivid descriptions of places on campus and within the city – from streets to shops that I frequented, brought back memories that I would have rather left buried at the time.
On a positive note, the reason I kept reading was because Hsu told this story in such a gripping and artful way. You could feel how much he cared for everything he was saying – and that there was a reason he was sharing it.
If you are able and the format works for you, listening to the audiobook is definitely the right decision here because you can hear the emotion in Hsu’s voice as he read his words out loud – they were captivating and shocking and made so many emotions bubble up within me. I cried, I laughed, and I sat in silence as I heard what Hsu had to say.
I found the first half of the book especially compelling, as Hsu dove into his childhood and his relationship with his immigrant parents – an experience I could personally relate to in a lot of ways. It was painfully obvious that he had processed and pondered enough to truly see his parents’ perspective, while at the same time not negating his own. He found ways to simultaneously show both, like in this quote here:
“Like many immigrants who prized education, my parents retained faith in the mastery of technical fields, like the sciences, where answers weren’t left to interpretation. You couldn’t discriminate against the right answer.”Stay True, Hua Hsu
While there was a large part of me that was negatively impacted by many of the discussions about college–and specifically UC Berkeley–life, I also found some sections that made me laugh in their relatability.
“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.”Stay True, Hua Hsu
I thoroughly enjoyed Hsu’s exploration of and reflections on his friendships. They felt so real in a way that felt nearly impossible. I personally reflected on friendship so much during my college years, and I could relate to Hsu here — my friendships were tested in ways that few are at this age. I made friends that left the moment things got hard or uncomfortable, and friends that stuck with me and have been by my side, not just through the moments of joy and excitement, but also through nights of grief and suffering. I learned so much from both of these groups of people, but even more so, I learned what friendship was.
“Derrida remarked that friendship’s driver isn’t the pursuit of someone who is just like you. A friend, he wrote, would “choose knowing rather than being known.” I had always thought it was the other way around.”Stay True, Hua Hsu
This memoir in its entirety was a reflection of Hsu himself and how his college years and his friendship with Ken changed him. It’s truly incredible when an author can get us to feel for a character and get inside their head, especially when that character is so different from ourselves. That, in essence, is what Hsu did with his descriptions of himself. They felt complete in a way that the way one describes oneself usually doesn’t – he shared the parts of himself that were easily loved, but also those that came across as a bit pretentious and cringey (we all have those parts).
“It was exciting to meander and choose who you wanted to be, what aspects of yourself to accent and adorn. You were sending a distress signal, hoping someone would come to your rescue.”Stay True, Hua Hsu
I could feel that this memoir was years of reflection coalesced into a thoughtful, artfully woven story. Although I myself wish I had known more about the contents before reading, I have so much respect for what Hsu was able to do in reflecting upon his experiences and sharing them with the world. I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who are fond of memoirs and deeper, emotional stories.
Have you read Stay True? I’d love to hear your thoughts down below!
Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day ❤