The New Yorker critic Hua Hsu discusses his lifelong relationship with zines, from teen years spent workshopping rough drafts of his identity to his latest print project.
Words: Adam Wray
Images: Marco Galloway
In late July, the writer Hua Hsu told me that he sees criticism as, “a form of storytelling rather than a series of arbitrary judgements… I don’t think I ever believed that I had great taste, which is also one of my weaknesses as a critic,” he said. “I don’t actually care what people like – this is what I like, you’re free to like what you like. Maybe I don’t mean that it’s a true flaw, but it sort of seems like that would be part of the job.”
It’s taken Hsu a while to arrive at this conception of criticism. Now 45, he has been a professional interpreter of popular culture for over two decades, and an enthusiastic amateur since the early 1990s, when he found his first outlet as a writer in the form of a self-published zine. That zine was, as Hsu described it, deeply concerned with arbitrary judgements. “When I started the zine, it was just like, ‘Here’s a bunch of shit I hate, here’s a bunch of stuff I think is cool.’” For Hsu, like thousands of other young writer-editor-art director-publishers, zine-making was a channel for self-definition.
Lately, Hsu’s writing has drifted from the expected ‘artist shares new work, critic reflects and responds’ model towards a more intimate format that uses relationships with pop ephemera as points of narrative ingress. Recent work for the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer for five years and counting, exemplifies this approach: an interview with a Ukrainian man selling his record collection and instruments on eBay from his apartment in Kharkiv while the city is bombarded; an excerpt from his just-published memoir, Stay True, animated by his recollections of, among other time-and-place touchstones, his father recording hours of MTV on the family VHS and dubbing compilation tapes of his favorite videos. Hsu’s writing pursues the personal, the passionate.
Last summer, Hsu released the inaugural issue of Suspended in Time, a short-run print project that sprung from a desire to practice simply listening. Described as, a “series of zines about music and life,” it is his latest foray in a lifelong affair with DIY publishing. The first issue spotlights the work of artist Noah Haytin, an illustrator whose visual imprint is all over 90s rap music. Beyond Haytin’s work for Bay Area legends like Mac Dre, E-40, and Luniz, he was also on staff at No Limit Records for a time, helping to set the visual tone for their early releases. Hsu met Haytin just before Covid, and over a series of video calls stitched together a retelling of Noah’s rise, in his own words. Suspended in Time is an exercise in, as Hsu puts it, “practicing how to convey to someone that their story is important.”
“When I was a teenager I would read a magazine about anything just to immerse myself in some world that I didn’t understand. I remember in the early 90s I picked up an issue of Details, and it had an article about zines in it. I thought, ‘Oh, that seems much cooler than this magazine I’m reading, but I don’t know where to find these.’ Around that time, I went to debate camp – I was a speech and debate kid – in Burlington, Vermont. There was this counselor there named King Maxwell who did this zine called Snot Rag, which was all about vegan anarcho punk, and he gave me a copy. He reviewed records that I had no desire, based on his descriptions, to listen to, and reviewed debate rounds from the tournaments he was doing as a college debater. It was really cool to immerse myself in this guy’s world. When I got back home after the summer I started making my own.
I figured out which bookstores and record stores in the Bay Area stocked them. I’d trade with people. When I got to college, that was, like, the heyday. There were all these nationally distributed zines like Giant Robot, Bunny Hop, Cool Beans, and Cometbus that I remember getting at Tower. It was really, really incredible for me to learn how to express myself by basically copying how other people expressed themselves. I feel like it’s not obvious sometimes that writers just learn how to write by trying on other people’s voices.
“My first zine was called Pop Scene. The name of a Blur song. I didn’t like the song that much, but I thought the name was really cool. It changed names a few times and by the end it was called Hella. It also changed perspectives. Even though it was pretty sporadic, I look back and I know exactly when I started going to raves. At a certain point I got super into politics, so rather than collages of TV shows it became collages of 60s protest posters. It felt very much like these rough drafts of who I wanted to become.
“It was around 92. The writing at first was mainly reviews of whatever records I could find. I write about this in my book, making fun of myself, but I was one of the millions of people who got into Nirvana in 91 thinking, ‘Nobody else gets this.’ I was reviewing anything that sounded like Nirvana that I could find on my local record store, writing in the style of these British music magazines, making everything sound like it was the greatest thing ever. But, at that age, anything you discover is the greatest thing ever. So, it was these super excited articles about, like, my friend’s brother’s band, The Kindred, who were San Jose’s only Mod band. Reviews of foreign films merely because they were foreign. Screeds against mainstream culture, whatever that meant at the time. I think the first issue had a long piece about how wack Beverly Hills 90210 was.
“My only goal was to make 10 issues. From 92 to 99, I made 10, maybe more. I gave a zine to my friend Oliver who was an editor at Urb Magazine, and he was like, ‘Oh, you should write for Urb,’ which was really exciting. Then I just started writing for newspapers and magazines. I can’t say I miss the way I used to write, but at a certain point I began to miss doing stuff for no legible reason, making something that nobody had asked me to make. Once you become a journalist you’re thinking about everything in terms of assignments, not necessarily in terms of how you want to spend your time. That’s something that I would periodically miss over the past 20 years.
“When you’re interviewing an artist, there’s the stuff you need to get for the profile – how the thing was made, what the struggles were along the way, where they came from – but there are always these little digressions that flesh out the person’s life. I became pretty bored of my own voice and role as a critic. What you’re trying to do as a critic is explain your excitement, but everyone feels excitement about things, and I would often find those to be the most meaningful interactions I would have with people, whether it was interviewing someone quasi-famous or just talking to a friend. I became much less interested in writing from that critical voice, and I really wanted to just listen to what other people had to say, and to find a way to broaden that perspective – why music and culture matters. And a lot of it actually started with just reading comments on YouTube and Discogs.”
“I had this mover who was like, ‘Why are your boxes so heavy?’ I said they were full of records, and he named some super rare house record from Dublin – he was Irish – from the late 80s that I had never heard of. He told me about working all summer when he was in his 20s to buy these records that eventually his mom sold, but he still thought about that one song. Those are the kinds of stories you get if you just go deep into the comments on YouTube and Discogs. People sharing these pure emotions. ‘I listened to this when my father was dying.’ I have hundreds of those types of comments screenshotted that I wanted to arrange into a narrative zine. That’s where it started – it’s called Suspended in Time because there’s a particularly good one under Group Home’s “Suspended in Time,” someone reminiscing about how they had survived and all their friends hadn’t. I wanted to do something that wasn’t criticism but was about the power of music and culture and the critical impulses that we walk around with every day.
“I met Noah through Oliver. I’d seen the Luniz logo before and just thought, like, a very perverse person designed this, but I would have never thought, ‘Oh, this guy also designed the In-a-Minute Records logo.’ He did C-Bo’s logo. He did a lot of really cool work, and he understood that he was part of history, but he’d never had his story told back to him.”
“I wanted to start with him because it made the project legible. These aren’t stories about artists or people you already know about, but people whose passion for the music compelled them to do something. In this case, it was just to try and hustle his artwork. In other cases, it could be that you become a club kid, you start your own zine, you leave comments 20 years later under a YouTube video.
“With writing, you’re always thinking about voice and perspective, and, obviously, my perspective is in here because I’m cutting up people’s stories and trying find these like interesting bits of language or throughlines, but it’s great to not have to say something deep about it, because Noah’s sense of experience and passion is deeper than anything I can say. I wish I could have interviewed him even more.”