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Memoir review: Stay True by Hua Hsu

Title: Stay True

Author: Hua Hsu
Year published: 2022
Category: Adult nonfiction (memoir)
Pages: 208 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location: (my 2023 Google Reading map): USA (CA, MA), Taiwan

SummaryIn 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.

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.

Review: This memoir came to my attention when my daughter told me about it because the author was a professor at her undergrad college (Vassar). It won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for memoir, sounded like my kind of story, so I got a copy.

I think it helped that the author is a bit younger than me so the years he is talking about resonated with me (think mixtapes, Nirvana, fax machines, etc). I am not totally sure what I think about this memoir. It is the thoughts of someone who writes well reflecting on growing up in the '90s at Berkeley, learning about himself, the world around him, and what it means to be a friend. How much of our formative years are we truly ourselves and how much of it is working to fit in and be different all at the same time?

And when tragedy hits us while we're in college, how does that affect the trajectory of our lives. Focusing on the one we've lost, dealing with guilt, and wondering how we could have changed the course of history can consume us. I think of of Hsu's biggest questions is at what point is it ok to move on, to keep living his life for himself and not for his lost friend.

This memoir is about college, friendship, finding ourselves (in ourselves and in others), figuring out how we fit into the larger picture, and what we do with ourselves along the way.

Challenges for which this counts:
  • Nonfiction

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