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Reviews of Stay True by Hua Hsu

Stay True

A Memoir

by Hua Hsu

Stay True by Hua Hsu X
Stay True by Hua Hsu
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 208 pages

    Sep 2023, 208 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu, a gripping memoir on friendship, grief, the search for self, and the solace that can be found through art.

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.

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 textbook 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.

Stay True

Back then, there was no such thing as spending too much time in the car. We would have driven anywhere so long as we were together.

I always offered my Volvo. First, it seemed like the cool, generous thing to do. Second, it insured that everyone had to listen to my music. Nobody could cook, yet we were always piling into my station wagon for aspirational trips to the grocery store on College Ave, the one that took about six songs to get to. We crossed the Bay Bridge simply to get ice cream, justifying a whole new mixtape. There was a twenty-four-hour Kmart down 880 that we discovered one night on the way back from giving someone a lift to the airport—the ultimate gesture of friendship. A half-hour drive just to buy notepads or underwear in the dead of night, and it was absolutely worth it. Occasionally, a stray, scratchy pop tune would catch someone's attention. What's this? I'd heard these songs hundreds of times before. But to listen to them with other ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. Discuss the narrator's relationship with his parents, who are at times far away. How would you describe the Hsu family dynamic?
  2. The memoir is set mainly in suburban California during the 1980s and 1990s. How does the time period and location shape Hua's experience of growing up? How does it mirror or contrast with your understanding of those decades?
  3. Music is a prominent element in Hua's life throughout the book, influencing both how he sees himself and how he judges others. How does the music he listens to relate to or reflect the events in his life, from childhood to college years? How does he change or incorporate other ways of engaging with society over the course of the narrative?
  4. The creation of original zines is Hua's ongoing ...
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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize

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    National Book Critics Circle Awards


BookBrowse Review


This notion of defining oneself through music highlights the importance of finding one's place in the world. While the pursuit of identity is a goal for most young people, Hsu's status as a second-generation immigrant adds another layer of complexity to his quest. His writing is understated, a style that is the perfect vehicle for the content but may not be to every reader's taste. Likewise, the musical references that pepper this memoir are a strength in that they provide rich cultural detail, but, to a certain degree, they rely on the reader's familiarity with the references for their full impact to be conveyed. Nevertheless, Stay True is a visceral, honest memoir with the potential to connect with a wide readership...continued

Full Review (737 words)

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(Reviewed by Amanda Ellison).

Media Reviews

BookPage, "Most Anticipated Nonfiction of Fall 2022"
A touching portrait of the years in a young person's life when every album, every item of clothing is a stake in the ground of their burgeoning identity.

LitHub "Most Anticipated Books of 2022"
One of the finest and most heart-rending remembrances I've ever read. Hsu writes about grief and nostalgia, youth and identity, family and friendship, with elegant, heartbreaking clarity. I wanted to linger over every memory, to stay with Hsu as he rendered the vast expanses of time that defined youth—car rides, browsing at record stores, collaging together an identity from loves and hates. This is a book of exquisite pain and beauty. Absolutely unmissable.

Booklist (starred review)
In every luminously rereadable, every-way-wending sentence, [Hsu's] writing astonishes. On the shaky formation of the self, it is unself-conscious; on the incredible youthful desire to make oneself known, it is knowing. Exploring identity, authenticity, and nostalgia as concepts and as feelings, this is an absolute stunner.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
This memoir is masterfully structured and exquisitely written. Hsu's voice shimmers with tenderness and vulnerability as he meticulously reconstructs his memories of a nurturing, compassionate friendship. The protagonists' Asian American identities are nuanced, never serving as the defining element of the story, and the author creates a cast of gorgeously balanced characters. A stunning, intricate memoir about friendship, grief, and memory.

New York Times
Hsu is a subtle writer, not a showy one; the joy of Stay True sneaks up on you, and the wry jokes are threaded seamlessly throughout.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
New Yorker staff writer Hsu braids music, art, and philosophy in his extraordinary debut...Hsu parses the grief of losing his friend and eloquently captures the power of friendship and unanswerable questions spurred in the wake of senseless violence. The result is at once a lucid snapshot of life in the nineties, an incredible story of reckoning, and a moving elegy to a fallen friend.

Author Blurb Jonathan Lethem, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of Motherless Brooklyn
Hua Hsu offers, with seeming effortless grace and lucidity...a map to his soul's becoming. He shows how he constructed an armor against the injustices of the world, one made only of porousness and transparency, the only armor worth donning. This kind and degree of sharing is a rare gift.

Author Blurb Ocean Vuong, New York Times bestselling author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Stay True feels like one of those books that is the sum total of a writer's life in thinking, craft, and curiosity, made felt at last, so that when the sentences come, they come with a deliberate, patient, and precise force. Hsu takes on the central theme of a friend's violent loss and casts from that void a story that, somehow, despite the hurt and confusion, embraces the world around it with a steady and capacious centrifugal force. This is the endeavor of writing at its most open, meticulous, forgiving and tender—which is to say, this is writing at its best.

Reader Reviews

Ravi Chandra

Important book at this time to highlight young men's friendships
Hua Hsu’s Stay True is a memoir about collegiate friendship, but also a cultural and mental health intervention, emphasizing that we stay true to the people in our lives and what truly sustains us. It is of particular interest for Asian American men ...   Read More
Anthony Conty

90s Nostalgia Wrapped in Tragedy
“Stay True” by Hua Hsu won the Pulitzer this year for Memoir/Autobiography, a new category I was excited to see. It is partly about being the son of immigrants, part a recollection of the 90s and part about grief and loss. The children of immigrants ...   Read More

I found it impossible to engage with this book. The main characters go off to university and nothing--absolutely nothing--they do is of any interest. So they wear vintage clothing. So they do stupid prankish stuff. Occasionally. So they don't always ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Zines and the 1990s

Black and white scans of riot grrrl zines from the 1990sIn his memoir, Stay True, Hua Hsu recalls his college years in the 1990s, including the role that zines played in the evolution of his identity: "Zines are a metaphor for life…It's your creation and your voice."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a zine as being a short form of fanzine, a kind of amateur-produced magazine designed for fans of niche interests. Unlike a traditional glossy magazine, they are typically made cheaply, photocopied and stapled together or folded like a pamphlet. In keeping with their DIY nature, they can also be glued, taped, or sewn. A zine's circulation is usually small — they are often disseminated to fewer than 1,000 readers. Zines offer unfiltered perspectives and their aesthetic is homespun,...

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