A staff writer at the New Yorker and an associate professor of English at Vassar College, Hua Hsu is a paradigmatic public intellectual. He is the author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific, which discusses the rising influence and bitter rivalries of Chinese American authors during the interwar years. He has written for outlets like The Atlantic, Artforum, Grantland, and the Village Voice; at the New Yorker he has written on, among other topics, Guy Fieri, The Simpsons, Bon Iver, De La Soul, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Stuart Hall.
Hsu and I spoke over Zoom in the fall of 2020.
Caitlin Zaloom (CZ): What was the first critical essay that you remember writing?
Hua Hsu (HH): I can’t actually recall the first piece of critical writing I ever did, because I’m in my 40s and I started off making zines and writing for them back in the ’90s.
Now I can look back and project a story of how I was resisting authoritarianism, which is what some histories describe as the roots of criticism. Making zines was positioned against unidirectional, authoritarian flows of knowledge. But at the time, I just wanted to have a voice and to shape a voice. I also really wanted free records.
CZ: Did your thinking about such writing change?
HH: When I started graduate school in 2000, there was a really firm distinction between academic writing and writing for a public. But while I was a graduate student, I was also working as a music critic for the Village Voice, Vibe, and all sorts of other publications.
It was actually a secret I kept from my professors. I thought it made me seem unserious. They weren’t particularly interested in writing and research for nonscholarly ends, and they weren’t unusual. It was how things were at the time. For both good and bad reasons, it’s much different now.
In the first few public pieces I wrote, I felt I was combining those two registers and approaches to audience—treating “normal” readers as scholars and scholars like they were “normal” people. The Village Voice used to have a section called “The Essay.” People who wanted to write something more ambitious on the zeitgeist or larger cultural context could publish there.
In 2006 I published an essay there on how “crack cocaine” had resurfaced in the cultural imagination, even though the crack era itself had long passed. At that moment, there were rappers who were romanticizing the ’80s and ’90s drug trade, and “crack” became an adjective. The book Freakonomics came out around the same time, and the authors, an economist and a journalist, wrote about the inner workings and meager profits of selling crack. There were other books: a sort of a courtroom drama by Ethan Brown that reported on the ’80s drug trade in Queens, self-published memoirs from 1980s uptown drug kingpins, and a photo book of ’80s New York by Jamel Shabazz that he titled A Time Before Crack. I was interested in the fact that crack was no longer ravaging people the way it had been 20 years prior, but it was now circulating anew, in all of these different ways, in the year 2004. It seemed like there was this sudden interest in myth making and demystification at the same time. I just wanted to bring different texts into conversation with one another to understand something about the context that produced them and what they suggested about our collective memory.
There was another piece I wrote for Dedalus, which was a kind of para-academic journal, about race in the age of Obama. I tried to structure it more like an essay I would actually want to read, not how academic writing is usually put together. Some of it drew on family history; other parts drew on anthropological theory and literary analysis. There’s a Jay-Z concert in there. Working on that piece made me think more about what you could do structurally to produce a voice, rather than just saying, “This is my voice, these are my experiences.” I was interested instead in how you can develop different approaches to managing authority. I was interested in how that could be an approach to representing myself on a page.
CZ: In that moment, when you were writing the Village Voice crack cocaine essay, you must also have been learning to write in an academic register. What were the conventions that you felt you had to learn in order to master both and to be able to switch between the two?
HH: I don’t think I’ve remotely mastered academic registers because you’re not taught how to write in graduate school. That wasn’t part of my graduate schooling.
As an undergraduate I also had never really thought about these things. So I think I did it the way a lot of people do it: I copied what other people were doing. I looked at books that I thought were interesting and figured out how they did it. In graduate school, I imitated my advisors a lot. Even if I didn’t understand what they were saying, I was always interested in how they structured their work, used transitions, stuff like that.
As I was learning to be a scholar, writing just wasn’t that much of what people were interested in. In fact, there was a suspicion toward writing that was too fluid. When I was a TA for a professor’s course, I really did not value teaching or think about it as a skill I wanted to master. It wasn’t actually until I led my own courses that I found I really loved and needed teaching. It made me a much better writer. So much teaching is about explaining things—not telling someone what to think but instead explaining why.
CZ: Academics have had a real ambivalence toward writing that brings readers into a subject and is structured to help them understand in new ways.
HH: Of course, there is also a purpose for jargon and academic writing. It’s just up to each graduate student—which was once me—to figure out why you’re drawn to this work to begin with. There are certain things that require technical language, such as paving new avenues of knowledge. But I’m not doing that. I’m not coming up with anything remotely paradigm shifting.
So, everyone has to ask themselves why they’re drawn to critical inquiry and whom they hope to address. I’m not against academic writing. There is certainly a time, place, and context for it, where that’s the only form of communication that will move things forward.
CZ: The academic sphere where I’m coming from already assumes the value of the conceptual shorthand for specialists that we sometimes call “jargon,” so I think we need to hear the argument on the other side.
That makes me think of your New Yorker article about Lauren Berlant and Cruel Optimism. Berlant’s writing can be very opaque. That article fits right at that fault line between these two ways of producing and circulating ideas.
HH: Journalism is a great way to devote a few weeks of your life to learning a lot about something, although not in the depth that academic work requires. My editor asked, “Hua, are you into Lauren Berlant at all?” and I wanted an excuse to read all of her work, which is pretty far from my actual field of expertise. One day, 20 books arrived, and I just spent three months reading them all, and then reading as many of the books as I could that had influenced those books.
Then I started off on my process. I begin with reading until I start to see double, seeing the same things over and over. That’s when I know I’m approaching the place of having read enough. Then I take all the stuff I read and I transfer it into notes in a document. Then I start thinking, Where am I going to start this piece? What would be an interesting lede, an interesting invitation to the reader?
Then I forget all that and I open a blank document and I see what I actually remember from what I’ve read, what notes I’ve taken, and what ledes I was working on. What you retain is probably what a reader will find interesting.
Berlant’s writing is actually beautiful in places and then more technical in others. Writing the piece was a matter of bringing those in sync with each other: explaining why the beautiful part is not simple as it initially seems, and figuring out how the opaque part can be translated to our everyday lives or thoughts. It’s similar to writing an academic book review or starting an academic project, only it requires thinking of audience a little differently.
CZ: Cruel Optimism was published in 2011 and your article was published in 2019. How did you make connections between Lauren Berlant’s work and the political upheavals that are going on around us?
HH: That wasn’t actually the question I went in trying to answer. I went into it just trying to figure out if I could explain affect theory and what it allows us to do or see.
In the process of harvesting everything you can for a piece, it’s always interesting to find writing or evidence that isn’t in the text. Berlant kept a blog and was blogging about insights that related to everyday politics. A lot of those blog posts ended up in her most recent book and became the anchor of the review. That allowed me to make the connection. It seems reductive to Cruel Optimism to say it is relevant because of Trump, but the blog posts and the new book, The Hundreds, allowed for that.
CZ: You didn’t only synthesize the ideas in Cruel Optimism and affect theory. You also allowed us into Berlant’s world, partly through the blog and also through her practice as a writer, which extended beyond the page and into a community of people who were interested in her ideas.
HH: Yes. There is this book called Art Worlds by Howard Becker, and it was one of the first books that started me thinking about the sociology of creative work. Becker was trying to dissuade us from thinking about the artist as an individual genius, and even that the artist is the only one responsible for the art itself.
We all kind of understand that implicitly, but Becker’s book shows how, in order to have the painting, you need the painter; but you also have the person who stretches the canvas and the person who supplies the paint. You need the agents, the showroom, and the distribution network. The work of art—the evidence of an artist’s genius—it’s actually this collaborative process that requires the efforts of so many different people.
It’s a way of mapping out the relationship between the person we identify as the artist and the world out of which the art piece can emerge. I think it resonated with me because when I was spending my weekends in grad school profiling up-and-coming rappers, you’d enter into this whole network, from their producers and engineers to their manager to their friends who would help pass out flyers at the mall to the friends entrusted with driving them around. Even though most fans would only ever know the rapper, their success depended on all these other people. I’m always interested in situating people, trying to figure out how other people have informed what they do.
CZ: Who are some of those people for you?
HH: Stuart Hall is someone whom I really admire. He wrote really well, and about this precise dynamic between the artist and the world.
Hall describes his association of Wordsworth and the daffodils he wrote about. Growing up in Jamaica, Hall never saw this flower, but he was forced to memorize the poem. As a result, he had a very different relationship to canonical knowledge than white people in England.
I always think about that: how fleeting ways of being taught or being disciplined then inform your critical practice. There’s the world that produces your work. After you’re done writing, there’s another world that the work produces. It’s important to never lose sight of that.
CZ: That’s a great technique for gaining critical purchase on a subject that can make it really alive. So is biography, which you used to structure your Maxine Hong Kingston profile. The piece discusses her final novel, which she will publish posthumously. In it, she’s anticipating her own death. That’s the arc of a life to its absolute most extreme end.
Bringing biography into the piece itself is revealing, because it makes us reflect on what we’re doing when we write. Biography asks us not to think about our own voices but to focus on how another has constructed theirs, always together with the people who’ve been in their lives, and not always in harmonious ways.
That came through in the section on Maxine Hong Kingston’s conflict with Frank Chin around the idea of what it would mean to be an authentic Asian American writer. It seems very, very contentious. At the same time, though, it goes on for years. Why is conflict a compelling thing to keep going?
HH: I’m totally fascinated with conflict and rivalry. One of my only beliefs about creativity is that we tend to romanticize why people do things. We’d like to believe that great, enduring art is produced in the name of beauty or the pursuit of truth. I think there’s probably a lot of petty animosity in the creative process, more than often shows up on the final page. Maybe you don’t like what someone did, so you do something else.
In the case of Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston, their rivalry was a driver, maybe not for their respective artistic trajectories—Frank has referred to Maxine occasionally in his own work, and there are bits of Maxine’s work where it seems like she’s talking about him. But I mean that it was a driver for the discursive world of “Asian American writing” in which their works would find a home. Decades later, Karen Tei Yamashita had this whole section about Frank and Maxine in The I Hotel, her incredible, epic novel about the Asian American movement.
In some ways it is the narcissism of small differences. They were very specifically interested in Chinese American writing. Even generationally they’re really talking about people from a specific part of China who came at a specific time and who have a very specific experience. It’s a very small territory, and yet the literary marketplace was saying, “Only one of you can be an Asian American writer in the mainstream.” So for them the stakes were really high even though what they were arguing about was pretty minor for the rest of the world that might engage with either of their works.
CZ: Conflict is fascinating because it establishes a problem and a space that other people can enter. Conflict actually produces something that can gather people together. That can also be an important function of the critic, to give definition to conflicts that deserve to be wrestled out in public. That’s why I was attracted to that passage on Maxine Hong Kingston’s conflict with Frank Chin.
I do wonder, though, about other ways we might produce knowledge that don’t have the character of a battle. How do we construct a world where genuine disagreements can exist without the presumption that we can get at truth through combat?
HH: That’s what criticism should do, right? The critic doesn’t win. The critic can’t win or lose, really. But you can point out both sides and try to identify the context that produced this. I’ve never been super vain about my own takes, about whether people like what I like. I think I actually like very “basic” things. Whatever I contribute is more like storytelling—the story that this basic thing helps us tell.
As I grew up reading magazines, there weren’t that many Asian American people writing as critics, so I gravitated toward writers who spoke from this kind of marginal position but did it in very inventive ways. That’s always mediated my relationship to authority. Even though I can teach and I can write and I can project authority, I’m always very wary of notions of expertise or authority on the page. It’s like I’m pretending.
When I write, I try to begin from a place of authority and then I try to lose it over time. I want to transfer it to the reader. I want the reader to be able to see past what I’m saying or to take things that I’m saying and go in a different direction. I don’t want them to lose faith in me so much as I want them to discover some of their own.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.