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Bruce Richardson Lecture 2023

Guest Hua Hsu and The Question of Taste and the Importance of Cherishing Things

Hua Hsu bio:

Our collective and individual identities are messy, amorphous, and impossible to define—but New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author HUA HSU says that’s a good thing. Telling our own complex stories complicates the narratives that are told about us, and opens up new worlds of possibility. Hua’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Stay True, which turned him into a “literary phenomenon” (The New York Times), was named one of The NYT’s Top 10 Books of the Year and won the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. It touches on the immigrant experience and growing up Asian-American; but more than that, it’s an exploration of grief, pop culture, being young, and how friendship helps us discover who we are. Hua weaves his story with wider questions of diversity and culture, proving that “we aren’t alone, and we never have been.”

Stay True won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Memoir, as well as the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. The National Book Critics Circles writes that Hua has “crafted a transformative addition to the Asian American canon and to the critical conception of what a memoir is capable of.” Stay True is one of TIME’s 100 Must-Read Books of the Year, a New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year, a Publishers Weekly best nonfiction book of the year, and a New Yorker best book of the year. Ocean Vuong, New York Times bestselling author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, said that Stay True is “writing at its most open, meticulous, forgiving and tender—which is to say, this is writing at its best.” Hua pays tribute to his friend by bringing their shared memories to life, elevating the entire memoir genre “with a kind of athletic ease” (Vanity Fair). A staff writer at The New Yorker since 2017, and a contributor since 2014, Hua has covered a range of topics: from immigrant culture and student debt to hip-hop and affirmative action. In addition to Stay True, he is the author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific. He currently teaches at Bard College and has previously taught at Harvard and Vassar College. Hua serves on the executive board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Critical Minded, an initiative to create opportunities for cultural critics of color, and was formerly a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at the New York Public Library.

How do we figure out who we are? And how do we define ourselves in comparison to others or the prevailing culture? To bestselling author and self-described “pack rat” Hua Hsu, reflecting on the things we like is one way that we can discover our own identities—not only as individuals, but also as communities. The things we love and find cool tell a story about us, and about where we fit into the wider culture and history. They are ghosts of the past, drawing us into history; and they’re markers of our identity and the things we love.

In this talk, Hua discusses the importance of liking things; and not only liking them, but understanding why we like them and what that says about us. He also discusses how important it is to have friends who like different things and have different tastes. As he writes in Pioneer Works, “your sense of selfhood needs to be complicated as much as it needs to be complete.”