Recently I picked up a book that had been on my to-read list for a while. Stay True by Hua Hsu came out last year to critical acclaim, winning this year’s Pulitzer prize for best memoir. I had heard good things about it and decided to take the plunge but could not have predicted the force with which this book would hit me.
Hua Hsu is the son of Taiwanese immigrants, growing up at a time when the internet is emerging. The book primarily focuses on his experiences at college and during his early 20s. It explores his friendship with Ken, a Japanese American who he initially dislikes but grows to love. It is a book that explores almost every emotion imaginable. Through Hsu we experience happiness, loneliness, grief, anger, love and more, all within the span of less than 200 pages.
I think the reason why this book resonated with me so much is because I read it at the right time in my life. University, arguably especially at Oxford, is a time filled with instability and change, and it is often easy to feel lost in the whirlwind. In this whirlwind, it is also easy to question our own place in the world; where we fit in, or if we will ever fit in at all. Many of us take our youth for granted, and Stay True is a reminder that it can be ripped away from us at any moment. Throughout the first half of the book there is a sense of time running out, an unnerving feeling that proves to be well founded. At the same time, however, it is a reminder that the best way to stop ourselves from taking youth for granted is to live, and live well.
At different points throughout the book Hsu sees the world through music. Music has an unrivalled power to spark emotion. It can bring us nostalgia, reminding us of years gone by or specific experiences. Sad songs make us blue, happy songs lift our moods. Songs mean things to us because of who it reminds us of, or because of where we were when we first listened to them. The artists who write our favourite songs influence our personalities, our senses of style, and who we choose to become friends with. I believe few things influence us more than the different forms of media we choose to consume, whether that be music, film, books, or others.
No more is the changing power of music illustrated in the book than through the song “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys:
“God only knows what I’d be without you
If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
God only knows what I’d be without you”
These are lyrics that we can experience so differently depending on where we are in life: who we are close to, who we are with, who we have lost, who we are yet to meet. When we are with those we love, this passage could show them how much we care and value them. If we lose those we love, it is a heart wrenching dismissal of the futility of life without that person. The upbeat major key of the song becomes almost irrelevant to the emotions we feel.
Of course there are also parts of this book I cannot directly relate to. Hsu was growing up as the son of immigrants, and faced certain racial prejudices that sometimes made him feel an outsider, Albert Camus would agree. However, it is through reading the experiences of others that we can empathise and understand each other. Reading the experiences of Hsu’s parents as well as the ways in which he himself felt like an outsider at times were, therefore, parts of the book where I felt I learnt the most.
All in all, Stay True is a gripping memoir filled with a mix of well-known and obscure pop culture references, philosophical reading recommendations, and anecdotes of growing up in the early internet era. It reminds us of our mortality, and for us students, it is a reminder that things will not be as they are now forever. Time is relentless, and regardless of what we go through it continues its inevitable march. At the same time, there is a beauty in this. We should not be lost in the past because if we do we isolate ourselves and miss the continuation of our stories in the present.
This is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough, and one that I myself will no doubt return to plunge in and out of in the coming months and years.