Stay True is a memoir born of trauma. In the summer of 1998, Hua Hsu’s friend and classmate Ken Ishida was murdered in a carjacking just before the start of their senior year at the University of California, Berkeley. However, this is not an account of that event. Instead, Stay True examines the reverberations of a friendship frozen in time by death.
In the immediate aftermath of Ken’s death, Hsu obsessively collected the detritus of their friendship—a cigarette pack, receipts, paper napkin jottings—and stuffed them in a padded envelope that he’s carried with him for years. Since then, Hsu has gone to Harvard, become a professor (first at Vassar College, and now at Bard College), started a family and taken on a parallel career as a staff writer for The New Yorker. In all that time, he’s struggled to find and express the essence of his friendship with Ken. How close were they really? What did their friendship mean? In Stay True, he seeks to recapture the look and feel of the moments they spent together smoking cigarettes on a dorm balcony, talking about girls and sexual inexperience. Moments in the car on a food run in Berkeley. Moments together planning projects inspired by the movie The Last Dragon.
Although Hsu was older than Ken, Ken feels like the older brother here. Ken was Japanese American, and his family has lived in California for generations, long enough that his grandparents were imprisoned in an internment camp during World War II. Hsu, on the other hand, is a first-generation American, the beloved son of recent immigrants from Taiwan. Ken had a conventional style, and plenty of self-confidence. Hsu sought to distinguish himself with his assertive taste in music and his offbeat clothing choices, and he had little of Ken’s social and cultural comfort. In moments like these, Stay True becomes a remarkable examination of the experience of immigration and assimilation.
But overall, Stay True is a questing exploration of the elusive nature of friendship as it shifts and reshapes with the passage of time.