Critic Hua Hsu Is An Enthusiast Of The Margin
How the Ghosts of the Past Can Change Our Thinking of the Future
- Photography: Caroline Tompkins
- Interview: Ross Scarano
Hua Hsu is a writer, professor, and self-described pack rat. This last descriptor is just as significant as the others. Whether he’s writing about a recently reissued collection of Asian-American literature from 1974 or the new Burial compilation or Dr. Dre, his work quarries artifacts that, as he’s noted, “vibrate more than others.” Of a 38-disc Woodstock anniversary set, he pokes at boomer myths: “There’s the past, and there’s the story we tell about it.” Of the late artist, rapper, and theoretician Rammellzee, he marvels at “an outsider’s survival strategy” and what it means to live “at the edge of comprehensibility, but in a way that invited others to wonder.”
Hsu is an enthusiast of the margin, a collector of what others might discard. (He co-curated a show at the Museum of the Chinese in America called “The Moon Represents My Heart,” which celebrated music in Chinese immigrant communities; and his Instagram is its own repository of what he’s amassed over the years, from zines to record-release swag.) The stories that fail to overthrow the dominant narratives of history drive his work. It’s been that way since he was young. “I was the type of person who would go to Lollapalooza, but spend all my time at the second stage with the more obscure acts,” he says, smiling only slightly below his glasses. “But it was a corporatized version of alternative culture anyway.”
When 85,000 items were thought lost in a terrible fire at MOCA, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Hsu composed a piece for the New Yorker, taking the measure of that loss in his deep and careful way. He located the uniqueness of MOCA’s enterprise—its belief that discarded everyday objects let us imagine the past, by way of its divergence from the priorities of the present. Hsu wrote, “American life, the Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong remarked, is about looking forward. He visited the United States in the forties and was especially bemused by Superman, the human embodiment of possibility, hurtling ever forward. Americans believed in superheroes, but not in ghosts. Ghosts draw you into the past. They are history.”
Hsu, 42, was born in Illinois, came of age in the Bay Area—Cupertino, specifically—and was raised by parents who emigrated to the United States from Taiwan but met in the States, in graduate school in California. An only child, Hsu says that he and his parents grew up in America together—they “acculturated” alongside each other, as he put it in an interview with writer Mary H.K. Choi, listening to popular music together and finding a common love for, say, Guns N’ Roses. That sincere enthusiasm is on display in his stories for The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 2017, and in the classroom at Vassar, where he’s an associate professor of English. He’s also a member of the executive board of the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, shaping the nonprofit's programming and strategy, to help put on younger writers and maintain its status as a countercultural force.
Hsu examines figures from the past who worked tirelessly and weirdly toward a future that didn’t arrive. In telling these ghost stories, he seeks to better understand the present—and to conjure a different future than the one that seems prescribed by the current discourse. His criticism pinpoints what has come before and then leverages those artifacts and ideas towards a projection of what’s to come. H.T. Tsiang, the experimental Chinese writer who is the subject of Hsu’s first book, A Floating Chinaman (2016, Harvard University Press) exemplifies this approach. In the 1930s and ‘40s, after emigrating to the States for university, Tsiang self-published formally unorthodox fiction and drama that pushed back against Pearl S. Buck and the handful of other writers who had the last word on China and Chinese culture in America. Tsiang failed in that his work was not taken seriously in his lifetime, but, as Hsu writes, failure is crucial to the future: “Failure always contains an alternative to the chosen path; at the very least, failure reminds us that some saw a choice to begin with.”
It’s a cold Monday in January, at a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the New York Public Library, where Hsu is a Cullman Fellow working on his second book. There’s a lunch special in which you can order three entrees and get a fourth at no additional cost. Seated in one of the “choice” red booths near the entrance, he explains, in his mild, unhurried voice, that this new book will be about his own past, which constitutes its own kind of margin in the writer’s typically self-effacing body of work. As he wrote about the MOCA collection: “Underneath a layer of dust, the possibility of treasure.”
Are you a tough critic of your work?
Writing is an attempt to express this thing you’re thinking or feeling at this intuitive level—translating that into language is really tough. Not a piece goes by where I don't think, “This could have been clearer.”
Are your parents readers?
I’m sure at this moment my dad is reading his phone. Growing up in the ‘80s with immigrant parents, I didn't know what they were reading, so I didn't identify them as cultured members of an intelligentsia. They're perfectly fluent in English and they read English-language books, but primarily, they'll read in Chinese. When we were in Taiwan—we were there a lot when I was younger—we would spend a lot of time in bookstores. Because I can't read Chinese, I would ask, “What are you reading?” The answers always surprised me: Sometimes it would be some sort of economic theory of the world, and sometimes it'd be, “This is a famous food critic telling us the 50 restaurants we should check out in Taipei.”
What music did your parents play around the house?
When I was a kid, I thought music was uncool because my dad was so into it. They both came to the U.S. in the early ‘70s for graduate school, and they were already learning a lot about American culture growing up in postwar Taiwan. Once they got here, my dad joined the Columbia music club where you’d get, like, a dozen LPs for a penny. Music was really important to them, but they've never been able to really articulate why—which is weird. It's not weird, actually—I think they're just normal people. Whereas I am a critic-slash-historian and I need to be able to articulate as precisely as possible why I like or dislike something. I have these really intense memories of my dad making himself mixtapes with the new Guns N’ Roses single while he was teaching me how to do geometry, which I was very bad at, and even realizing then that this is kind of an odd scene. He was traveling to Asia a lot for work and he would buy bootleg tapes in Korea and Taiwan. He would make himself these tapes that we would listen to on road trips. When he was living in Taiwan, he would come back to the States and tape MTV through the night. From midnight to 8 a.m., a VHS tape with eight hours of music videos. And then when he was back in Taiwan, he had these two VHS players and he would make himself a VHS tape of all his favorite videos. He would imbibe what was popular in these eight-hour chunks every few months.
Your new book is going to be about your own life.
The project I'm working on right now predates any writing I ever did, professionally or even quasi-professionally. It's essentially about this really formative friendship in college and how it ended tragically. In the early 2000s, the market for first person writing had yet to truly emerge. And that was great for me, because I didn't feel like I had the ability to tell this story.
What specifically about ‘90s culture do you think is productive to examine right now?
I don't know if anything about the ‘90s would help us through the present. But I think there's extreme difficulty in imagining a different way of life—a different feeling of inevitability. For me it's as simple as describing waiting for someone to send you something in the mail that you had convinced them to send you via the internet. You dial-up to a message board, to a college student across the country who has this record you've never heard. You mail them two cassettes—one for their trouble—and they mail you the record back, dubbed onto a tape.
There’s this texture to how life was in the past, whether it's the 90s, the 60s, or the 1880s, that is inaccessible to us. But it's useful to think about what it was like for people to be alive in the past and how that shaped their imaginations and expectations of the world. It could help us in trying to figure out what kind of world we want moving forward.
That reminds me of a line in a recent piece of yours, about this 1974 collection Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. You write about these writers “in pursuit of horizons that were forgotten once their authors were absorbed into latter-day categories of identity.”
All of my work is about the future and about how artists who don't have encumbrances like the rest of us imagine the future. And even though you would think, “It’s a canvas, it’s a paint brush: it’s always going to be the same”—it’s not. Because you're limited by what you can imagine and what you can foresee. I'm interested in what people in the past could and could not foresee. With Aiiieeeee!, when it was taught to me, it was like, “These guys are all misogynist dickheads.” And there are obviously elements of misogyny that run through the work of some of the writers, but they were also very limited by the fact that they were the only other Asian-American writers they know—so, what do you expect is going to happen? They were their own little gang trying to find a path together. I think there's something utopian about that.
“All of my work is about the future and about how artists who don't have encumbrances like the rest of us imagine the future.”
What does productive agitation look like in pop culture right now? I was thinking about that while watching Tyler at the Grammys.
The comparison I heard with Odd Future was the Beastie Boys, in terms of how ignorant they were when they started versus what they became. I feel like a lot of politics now is so focused on the body and individuals: my emotive affect, my emotional response, my position. It seems like a lot of the models for how to be transgressive are at the level of individual posture. Tyler, Young Thug, Lil Nas X, Megan, Cardi—but that's very much this ethos of “I can be whoever I want to be.” And who knows what that will spawn over time. But it’s a little different than the structural agitation.
Culture moves so fast, and the business around culture moves so fast. I like teaching because I’m around young people who challenge me. The only way any of this works, whether it’s writing or teaching, is by believing that young people are going to figure some shit out.
It was much easier in previous eras of capitalism to know where the lines were drawn, and to be able to say this is bad because it's clearly exploitative. I’ve been reading a lot of books about the ‘90s and zine culture, and looking back it’s so obvious how it was all going to get absorbed into how culture was sold back to the youth. It makes you wonder if that’s the feature of capitalism.
What do you think H.T. Tsiang would make of The Farewell?
You’d have to explain A24 to him. It’s hard to say because his politics were kind of reactionary in a funny way. I think he would probably feel envy—like, “I could have been in that.” I think it would strike him as strange that these larger structures could be boiled down to the choices these individuals make in a melodrama.
A thing I admire about H.T. Tsiang is that whenever I find a first edition of his book, it’s always autographed. He would make someone buy it in person and sign it for them; he’d walk into a restaurant like this and say, “Please buy my book.” His model of how culture works is very much built on forcing someone to confront these ideas or these characters. So, he would probably want something with more friction than this family story, where everything resumes this equilibrium where everyone loves each other.
What's the connection between criticism and curation?
They’re both about presenting a vision of the world. But something I didn’t realize until I participated in curation is that it’s actually way more idiosyncratic. When we curated the show at MOCA, I kept approaching it like a writer, thinking we gotta mention this and this. But Herb and Andrew, the curators at MOCA, were just like, “No, this is us. This is what we are doing. We don’t have to put it all in there. If we put it all in there it would be overwhelming and impossible for someone to walk through. Just pick what you want in the show, and that will be the show.” That was mind-blowing to me. Because as a writer, you're always anticipating what someone might say you left out.
Reading about the fire was difficult. How do you process a loss like that?
My heart goes out to the people who oversee the archives and work there. We live in this moment where we prize minimalism and getting rid of things, and there are good reasons for that—given the ecological catastrophe we live in, it seems senseless to produce new things just to have things. But I’ve always been obsessive about the clutter of my life and the clutter of my parents’ lives and my grandparents’ lives.
Growing up, I was fascinated with the things that my parents had. We would live in a suburban two-story house but every time we moved, they would thin out the collection of things they brought from Taiwan. They had this little bookcase in our garage and it had Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, a book about Nixon's visit to China, and some radical pamphlets that my mom got about slavery and white supremacy. It was a very random assortment of things to have survived the years, and yet it did survive. Even though very little intention went into why my parents kept the things that they kept, I would see how they cherished certain things. Like the bag that my mom emigrated with—l still use that sometimes. A necklace that my grandmother wore. Things that one could find at a thrift shop and would be pretty worthless were things that they found meaningful. And then there were other things they didn't find meaningful, that I sort of assumed the responsibility of finding meaningful. The thing about the MOCA collection is, it was so much stuff like that. Things that Jack Chen and Charlie Lai would find dumpster diving. It’s very sad. But the beauty of a collection like that is they can build it again with other people’s things.
You feel responsible in some way for the history of your family.
Which, when you put it that way, sounds totally ridiculous.
Part of it is a generational thing, where the generation of immigrants is just trying to get by and see tomorrow. Then, once you attain a certain level of comfort, your kids can be the ones who are precious, or pensive, about things. Writing this book has accelerated my drive to acquire weird ephemera from the ‘90s. It’s feeding my collector thing, but it also makes me feel like I can let go of a lot of things I’ve been keeping just for this moment.
Will you have a ritual parting?
I've been toting around things for the past 21 years in these padded mailers that I can finally let go of.
What are they?
Letters, receipts, old packs of cigarettes, airline tickets. They’re all associated with this one moment.
Will it feel cathartic to let it go?
Probably no more than actually writing it. But as a result of writing this book, I’ve been listening to these playlists that are filled with music that I categorically stopped listening to in 1998. After my friend was killed, I stopped listening to almost everything I listened to up until that day; I rebooted my personality and started listening to all new stuff. So I have these playlists of brittle indie pop from the mid-’90s that I haven’t listened to in quite some time. It's very triggering to listen to now.
Do you like working out of the library?
The fact that society used to provide things like this for anyone, it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe when you go in. Of course, nowadays, it's primarily tourists who come because it’s so Instagrammable. But I like that aspect of it; we're in our little center and we take our projects really seriously, but as soon as you walk out to go to the bathroom, nobody gives a shit about what you're doing. It’s a reminder: don’t take it too seriously. All these people in my workspace, they couldn’t care less about my project. They just want me to help them find the bathroom.
Ross Scarano is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.
- Photography: Caroline Tompkins
- Interview: Ross Scarano
- Date: March 23, 2020