This perfectly sized memoir is beautiful and devastating.
Hua is a college student in California in the 90s: a time of internet chat rooms and mixtapes and Nirvana and zines, a rich social and cultural history constructed through objects and pastimes – many of which are long gone.
And given this past which feels even more foreign as time goes by, and given what we know about the events that transpire during these heady Berkeley years, it’s not surprising that the memoir is suffuse with nostalgia – not of the rose-tinted sort, but of the meticulous cataloguing of memories to keep them alive for just a little while longer. It is an act of taking ‘moments that seem inconsequential until you have a reason to hold on to them,’ and ‘arrang[ing] them in a pattern.’
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hua is hugely self-conscious, in the way most of us are in our late teens, and determined to shirk anything ‘mainstream’. Ken is his opposite, a frat boy dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch, charming and gregarious to Hua’s quiet cynicism – and in some ways they are an unlikely pair, with the only thing in common being their Asian Americanness. But they connect through their rhapsodies on life and love and build and steadfast bond. They’re at that gloriously messy stage in life of ‘cycl[ing] through legendary infatuations sure to devastate us for the rest of our lives.’ Hua is pretentious and awkward but consciously so, with the perspective of an older man looking back at his past self.
We know Ken will die, tragically and suddenly, and it’s through this lens that we see Hua’s ruminations on an imagined future, forever considering the days and weeks and years to come, years that take them on to the ‘rest of their lives’.
‘At that age, time moves slow. You’re eager for something to happen, passing time in parking lots, hands deep in your pockets, trying to figure out where to go next. Life happened elsewhere, it was simply a matter of finding a map that led there.’
We know Ken will die, but it’s no less wrenching when it happens, the victim of a carjacking that turns into a terrifying ordeal ending in murder. Senseless, unimaginable violence. Hua blames himself – if he’d been at the party that night, would anything have been different?
This a memoir about navigating grief and coming of age, but it’s also about the act of writing as a way to collapse and mold time.
‘I became obsessed with the possibility of a sentence that could wend itself backward. I picked up a pen and tried to write myself back into the past.’
Writing is power, giving us a way back to a time and a place and a person that are forever gone. Stay True is a stunning, affecting example.