Hua Hsu Ponders the Meaning of Friendship and Identity in the Face of Loss
The author of "Stay True" on nostalgia and the politics of memory
Being young is an embarrassing thing. I say this as a former young person myself. The worst of it is your teenage and early adult years when you’re trying to figure out who are you. The easiest way to do this is to find out who you’re not. I am not an athletic jock, so I am a book smart nerd; I am not an exuberant theatre kid, so I’ll be a gloomy goth.
Like all of us, writer Hua Hsu is guilty of this. The early parts of his memoir Stay True are about figuring out who he actually is. He has a good idea of who he wants to be: the kind of person who collects records, makes zines. Then comes an Abercrombie and Finch-wearing frat bro, Ken. Despite inhabiting different ends of the social landscape, the two become close friends. When Ken is murdered, Hua is left adrift.
It turns out who you are is not only the identities you dream of and make, you’re your friends as well. At its core, Stay True is a memoir of a friendship—of any friendship: what we learn from others, what we give in exchange, and how it gives shape to the story we tell ourselves of ourselves.
The project of a memoir easily lends itself to nostalgia, so it makes sense to start my conversation with Hua Hsu there. We met via Zoom (as many of us do, nowadays) to talk about the politics of memory, Derrida, the shape of stories, and more.
Eric Nguyen: Stay True starts with memories of driving and listening to mixed tapes. That sets tone of the memoir, a genre that is naturally prone to nostalgia and looking back at the past. Reading about the music you listened, along with the current nostalgia moment with the resurgence of vinyl records and the popularity of ’80s- and ’90s-inspired shows like Stranger Things, it got me thinking about nostalgia, its meaning and its uses. Why are we drawn to nostalgia?
Hua Hsu: Generally, I’m nostalgic. I’m sentimental. I’m a hoarder. I’m an only child, so I just like hoarding things. I have a lot of remnants from the past, souvenirs from life. All that said, I didn’t want the book to feel nostalgic in the sense that I wanted anyone to actually care about my past. When things happen in nostalgia, like you mentioned Stranger Things, oftentimes it’s appealing to us to think that the past was simpler or that people back then didn’t know how bad the world would become. That’s true in an emotional sense in my book. I was writing about the past, trying to capture the granular quality of living in a different time.
It wasn’t better. I mean, I liked it because it was what I knew. But there were many aspects of it that were not better than the present, not more convenient than the present for certain. There was a quality of how we spent our free time, what it meant to feel bored, how our lives could partially be online, but very much not be online. The kinds of conversations and jokes and references we would have to come up with because there was so much time in the day to fill. That was the thing that I struggled to capture. We all are beholden to things that really appealed to us when we were teenagers, because that’s such a formative time in one’s life. Part of what I wanted to capture was that sense of excitement or that sense of how a teenager or someone in their early 20s experiences time, more so than I wanted to glorify the ’90s. But it’s inevitable, because it was a backdrop for so much of this.
I do think that, in general, nostalgia appeals to people, especially if it’s this vicarious nostalgia. I’m 45. I didn’t experience any of the realities in Stranger Things, I didn’t experience life the way these kids experience life. Culturally we’ve reached this point in time where the past is this text that can be manipulated and seems so malleable.
EN: Is there a danger in nostalgia? On the flip side, is nostalgia useful to have?
HH: We definitely live in a moment where the desire to cater to nostalgia feels very much like it’s having this tranquilizing effect. It’s the conversation people have in movies about fan service. The idea that people can’t bear for the universe of Star Wars to be more reflective of our world now, or for there to be a female Ghostbusters. That is the danger of nostalgia; one is just so in love with one’s own experience of the world.
For me personally, I don’t necessarily know. Svetlana Boym wrote this book about nostalgia and part of it is that she’s writing about Russian immigrants, and how Russian immigrants have this sense of nostalgia that’s very different from what a WASP American in the ’50s would feel, because they’re dislocated, so they’re projecting onto this now imagined homeland. And it’s something that then the children inherit as well.
I associate with that, and there’s a slightly painful aspect to it because you’re conscious of how there’s not this continuous lineage linking you to the past. I feel this yearning to know more about my parents or further back through my family lineage that feels like what people would describe as nostalgia, but it’s not necessarily something that could ever be satisfied. That’s probably why I turned to writing.
EN: There’s a scene is in your book, where your parents go back to Taiwan and they’re looking for the stuff that they enjoyed while they were younger. That spoke to the nostalgia that you mention and the dislocation for immigrants. Thinking about lineage and history, the children of immigrants inherit a nostalgia, but it is not their nostalgia.
Personally, if my parents talk about their time in Vietnam, the music they listened to, etc., it’s not a sense of nostalgia that I have, though for them it is. For me, it’s looking back and imagining what my parents would’ve been like. How does the nostalgia of one’s parents affect you as a child of immigrants who is mainly severed from their nostalgia?
HH: That’s so real what you’re describing. I always dread drawing any conclusions about “America,” even if they’re critical, because it bolsters this notion of exceptionalism. I do think that there’s something about the youth of America in the grand scheme of things. It’s such a young country that American culture is narcissistic about its own recent past. Growing up here, you’re inundated with this sense of how things once were. It’s not how things once were in terms of thousands of years of history and language; it’s about how things were in sort of a neighborhood that’s really only 20 to 30 years old. I’m sure this happens everywhere, but the country is obsessed with rebooting itself in order to get back to some imagined place that it once was; it really screws with our sense of the historical past.
As someone who grew up here, it’s impossible not to internalize that in some way, the sense that there is something to return to. For immigrants, like my parents, they left something willingly and didn’t assume they would ever go back. Growing up, they would often remember things, but it wasn’t indulging in nostalgia the way young Americans indulges in nostalgia. It was really (I hesitate to say) recovering trauma. There were triggers for emotions or feelings or memories that they didn’t have the time to put language to. They were sensations that they had thought they had forgotten perhaps forever.
And I always appreciated and studied those moments when my parents would have them. They didn’t view themselves as part of “America” to the extent that they thought their stories mattered necessarily. I think that’s why I became interested in writing some of their stories or thinking about how their stories were passed on to me, not as life lessons or as pedagogy, but as a mode of being, a way of behaving.
EN: Your book is filtered through the idea of nostalgia, but the core of the book is centered around friendship, in particular your friendship with Ken, who’s your opposite.
You mentioned Derrida’s reflection on friendship, paraphrasing: “From that very first encounter, we are always preparing for the eventuality that we might outlive them, or they us. We are already imagining how we may someday remember them or pay tribute to them.” It’s as if to say that in friendships we’re always looking ahead to a life where they aren’t there and how we might look back.
The concept of friendship that you have in the book is that once you start a friendship, you’re looking forward to that day where you can remember them. So that’s a forward looking. But once a death happens, you’re impossibly going back to how things were, those good feelings. What’s interesting to me here is how that makes for a strange plot line. In a traditional narrative, it’s a movement from point A to point B to point C, and that’s a plot line.
What do you have to say about the timeline of friendship and what it means for the timeline of our internal narrative?
HH: It’s funny that you use the words “plot line,” because in my mind, nothing actually happens in my book. There’s no plot. I mean, obviously things happened, but what happened to me is internal and it’s not an epiphany. I didn’t have an epiphany, even though I feel like I lived one.
The quote you’re talking about from Derrida about how he thinks that there is this element baked into friendship where we are always preparing ourselves for the day when you’ll no longer be friends, whether it’s because you’re no longer friends, or in his case because people die—that idea appeals to me. When we were talking about nostalgia before, I realized that it’s how even in high school I would say, “Ah, I’m sad this moment is almost over because then I’ll start thinking about it as something in the past.” Even though when you’re young, you have the license to never think about these things. You’re living in the moment. And at the time, even though I was this nostalgic, sentimental person, I was very much driven by my own impulses. No need to remember anything, because we’re always going to keep generating new memories, that’s what you’re allowed to do when you’re younger. And now that I teach at a college, I think about it a lot with my students, that the engine of friendship is just pleasure and understanding and fun.
The need to impose a narrative meaning on anything or to look for clues as to what could have been, that impulse doesn’t descend until there’s a reason for it to descend. Derrida thinks our way out of this is for us to look toward the future, even if it’s just one of us. That’s ultimately what I tried to do with the book, to be less beholden to looking to rooting around in the past and look for those lessons and for motifs when there are no motifs. It’s just life. You’re just young.
And that’s sort of a plot. I think that what happens in the book is that I become much less of a ridiculous person. I mean, I’m still a ridiculous person at the end of it. It’s now easier to imagine a future that’s multi-hued, a future that balances memories of great times with memories of sadness. That’s not something that had ever occurred to me back in the 90s, that it was possible to hold both those feelings at once.
EN: You wrote that “friendship is about the willingness to know rather than being known.” The first part of your book is you trying to make your identity, trying to know yourself and what type of person you are or want to be. But the memoir ends with you knowing someone else. There’s this moment in the book where Ken is tying a balloon for a kid and that is kind endearing to you. It’s something you didn’t expect from him. Through that moment, you come to see someone else, these aspects of themselves. It’s like a thesis about friendship. What does friendship mean, especially over a lifetime, even if a person is gone?
HH: It’s a question I think about a lot. Deep down, I always wanted to be known rather than to know, to use the Derrida framing. As you get older, you realize how the things people teach you, whether they’re intending it or not, they become the guideposts. It’s really in those modest acts of decency that we model for each other, that friendship carries on beyond that moment.
I don’t know how deeply I would’ve thought about any of these things had this not happened. Perhaps I would’ve gone on being, in my mind, a good friend but in reality, a very self-absorbed friend. Maybe I still am. I don’t know. But that’s something that I think about a lot, because in some ways I’m still very much living in the past because I teach at a college. I’m always around young people who are also on the precipice of any number of futures.
When I see my students and the ways in which they treat one another or tend to one another, it’s very moving to have that perspective of being older and knowing how weird things can get in your 20s, in that pivotal moment of life. I try not to guide them in those moments and let them treat each other and test out their relationships in ways that are fitting to them. It’s something that I’m always observing, and then referring back to my own life and my own friends. It’s very cheesy, but it goes back to that line from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure that you should be excellent to one another. And the other thing I always tell my students is something that my friend Chris used to tell his interns, which was just, don’t be a dick.
EN: Good advice!