Interview #91 — Ben Law

Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez


Benjamin Law writes books (The Family Law, Gaysia, Law School), TV screenplays (SBS’s The Family Law, Channel Ten’s Sisters), columns (Good Weekend, The Lifted Brow) and journalism (Quarterly Essay: Moral Panic 101).

He also co-hosts the ABC’s weekly national radio pop-culture show Stop Everything and the online startup/tech TV show That Startup Show, and has appeared on the ABC’s Q&A and SBS’s Filthy Rich and Homeless.

Benjamin spoke to Adolfo about storytelling, community and multiplicities of identity.

This interview is also featured in our first print edition. Pick up a copy here.


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Your career is rather multi-faceted, but let’s start with perhaps the most accessible: The Family Law in its television incarnation, which premiered its final season late last year. What’s that journey been like?
Christ, I don’t even know where to begin. The Family Law—the TV production—has been part of my life for the past 8 years now. We started developing it as a TV show with Matchbox Pictures at the end of 2010—the same year the book came out—and now we’ve got three series of a show that’s won awards, launched careers and sold to over 70 territories around the world. It’s been thrilling, exhausting and the best education of my life.

The most rewarding things have been viewers telling us how much the show means to them, and the fact that we’ve built an incredible community of actors, directors, producers, writers and crew members who believed in the show. It takes a small village of people to make any TV program, and every last soul who’s worked on The Family Law has been brilliant. The fact we get to finish the trilogy with a teen storyline about coming out as gay—in a migrant family—is kind of mind-blowing. It makes me emotional to think about it. But that might also be the exhaustion speaking.

Speaking more broadly, what are your thoughts on Asian screen representation today?
Well, Asian representation is obviously great in Asia. But, in multicultural countries where Asian diasporas and communities are a minority, representation is pretty grim. Australia should be leading the way, given roughly one in ten Australians has significant Asian heritage—roughly proportionate to how many African-Americans there are in the US. But when you look at black representation in America—in politics, the arts, business, the media—and compare it to Asian representation in Australia, we don’t even come close. Where are our yellow and brown faces on screen?

Ultimately, it all comes down to racism. I know that sounds like a big call—and to even say ‘racism’ in Australia compels people to either tune out, dismiss you as hysterical, or question whether you’re the racist for talking about race. But I’m not talking about the racism of people calling you slurs out of car windows or some mentally unwell person having a spray at you on a bus. I’m talking about the structural racism that has resulted in white gatekeepers at every level of the arts and media that’s prevented non-Anglo Australians—who are a third of the population—from being able to tell their stories.

It’s slowly changing. In the last decade alone, we’ve had Australian TV shows created and/or written by folks like Lawrence Leung (Maximum Choppage), Ronny Chieng (Ronny Chieng: International Student) and my sister Michelle Law (Homecoming Queens). Internet stars like Natalie Tran have been killing it online. And we’re starting to see Asian faces—East, South and Southeast Asian—even in soaps like Neighbours, kids and teen shows, and one-hour dramas. Overseas, the mainstream Hollywood success of Crazy Rich Asians and great movies like Searching are helping ensure other shows starring Asian-background actors get the green light.

But it’s not a revolution. It’s a start.

In multicultural countries where Asian diasporas and communities are a minority, representation is pretty grim… Where are our yellow and brown faces on screen?

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The Family Law memoir recounts, among other things, your family’s experiences of negotiating migration/diaspora within Australian culture. Can you tell us about those struggles and Australia’s attitudes towards multiculturalism?
In most ways, we were pretty lucky. I was born in the late 1980s in an aggressively white part of Australia, but that period of Australian history was all about embracing multiculturalism. It was official government policy and people loved shit like the World Expo ‘88 coming to town. That flipped in the mid-1990s with Hansonism, though. Asians became public enemy number one. We had family friends beaten up and I still remember an increase in people yelling shit at us from moving vehicles. It was gross.

Still, we were clear from the start: our TV show wasn’t going to be about ‘ethnicity’ or ‘cultural identity’, even though I love stories about those things—and a lot of the book explored those topics, too. Instead, we wanted to show the specifics of a Cantonese-Chinese-Australian family, without making it the plot. You hear Cantonese—as well as some Mandarin and Japanese—spoken in the show. You can see the kids struggling to speak their parents’ language. You see them eat steamboat and congee. There are mixed-race neighbours across the road. But that isn’t the plot most of the time.

Same goes with me: sometimes, in real life, my ethnicity isn’t the A-storyline. But I can’t disentangle it from my narrative, and I wouldn’t want to, either.

Both the show and the book deal with your adolescent coming out, too. Another of your books, Gaysia, explores this facet of your identity, and it’s something you often write and speak about. What’s it like being (as you put it in your Twitter bio) a ‘local homosexual’?
Putting ‘local homosexual’ in my bio is obviously me being facetious, and kind of a commentary on how I’ve been—and inevitably will continue to be—pigeonholed in my work. People are pigeonholed for their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, abilities, class, age and size, as if middle-aged, middle-class, cis-het able-bodied white dudes are the Australian neutral.

But I figure we all need to be the role models we needed when we were growing up. And, given I look back and realise I didn’t see many prominent Asian-Australians growing up, and I didn’t meet an openly gay person until I left home, I feel like it’s worth announcing things. I’m here. I exist. I’m like you. You’re not alone.

That would’ve saved me so much grief and anxiety growing up. And because I’m in my mid-30s now, I do have younger queers come up and tell me they used to read me writing about my boyfriend in frankie magazine years ago, and that it helped.

LGBTQIA+ issues are something you’re clearly passionate about—you even penned a Quarterly Essay on Safe Schools in 2017. What drives all of this?
It’s been over a year since Moral Panic 101 came out now. Recently, I was talking about it with my friend Anna Krien (who wrote the Quarterly Essay that came out before mine) and we both realised how much it cost—emotionally, physically and psychologically. Looking back, I think I wrote and edited the Quarterly Essay in a state of undiluted anger. Writing is a way to organise mess, and I needed to write this account of what actually happened with Safe Schools to educate myself and my readers, but also to organise and make sense of that anger.

Same goes with me: sometimes, in real life, my ethnicity isn’t the A-storyline. But I can’t disentangle it from my narrative, and I wouldn’t want to, either.

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You were also on the frontline during the fight for marriage equality in Australia. Where would you say we are at—as a nation, as a community—now that it’s enshrined in law (no pun intended)?

It’s funny: I’ve got no personal interest in marriage myself. My parents’ marriage was pretty bleak. I’d rather spend the insane amount of money people put into weddings on a holiday. But fucked if I don’t find myself crying at every single wedding I attend. People publicly declaring their love for each other—it’s adorable!

But any queer person in Australia with any degree of awareness knows the work isn’t finished. We might congratulate ourselves that Australia’s a tolerant society for having legislated marriage equality. But that really is only a metric of whether we’re comfortable with two adults having a party and committing to their love publicly. If we surveyed how many Australians are comfortable with same-sex parents? With their kids’ teachers being trans? With their own kids being intersex or trans? With their family member being HIV-positive? We’ve got a long way to go.

A particular memory I can’t shake is that of sharing the dancefloor of a Melbourne Writers Festival party with you and photographer William Yang; I can’t help but think of queer lineages, of multiple gaysian generations. Why is it important that we keep telling our stories and educating ourselves—and others—about our history?
Because we weren’t raised with it. If you come from an Indigenous or migrant background, for instance, you might be raised with the stories, dishes, languages and history of your forebears. Not always, but often that’s the case, because your family shares the same background.

When you’re queer, it’s likely you’ll be raised by cis-het parents, and that you’ll be the minority in your family—if not the only queer person in the household. So you don’t grow up with that sense of queer family, history and customs. You don’t know your lineage.

And so much of queer history is hidden. It wasn’t until I moved to Sydney that I learned about the spate of 1970s–1990s homophobic hate-crimes, where dozens of men were brutally murdered, and that many of the culprits were teenagers. A lot of those murderers still walk among us. How did we not know that? And how do so many young gays not know Australia was a world leader in addressing HIV and pioneering a model of community engagement the world now adopts as best practice? We tell our stories to remind us of the shames of the crimes committed against us, but also of the pride we should have that we’re part of a community that’s survived, and to acknowledge the work people have done before us.

When you’re queer, it’s likely you’ll be raised by cis-het parents, and that you’ll be the minority in your family—if not the only queer person in the household. So you don’t grow up with that sense of queer family, history and customs. You don’t know your lineage.

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As I see it, comedy is central to the work you do, no matter how heavy-handed or political. What is it about humour that makes it such a potent tool for broaching serious topics?
I don’t want to be one of those wankers who quotes dead people… but I’m going to be one of those wankers who quotes dead people. As Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw—some famous dead white guy—once said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” And plus, even in the direst of horrors, there’s absurdity. Racism is fucking bleak as, but it’s also batshit insane, like the time a white primary school classmate called me the n-word. Even then, I knew that bursting out laughing was the correct response.

And with humour comes a bit of exposure and irreverence—you certainly don’t shy away from talking about sex (if the column you co-write with your mother, Jenny Phang, for The Lifted Brow is anything to go by)!
Oh god. I can’t believe I am still co-writing a sex advice column with my mum and it’s been over half a decade! The Sydney Opera House and the National Library of Australia got us to do gigs there because of those columns—and the anthology (Law School) that’s come out of it! It’s fucking nuts.

Your work goes beyond identity, however: on That Startup Show, you tackle entrepreneurship culture; on Filthy Rich and Homeless, you confront homelessness; for Daily Life and Stop Everything!, you’ve ruminated on everything from Beyoncé to Netflix to crying on planes. How do you juggle all of this?
Don’t get me wrong: my iCal is a nightmare. But my worst nightmare would be being locked into one job for the rest of my life. Even doing one task for a week is gruelling—and committing to something like the Quarterly Essay and staying focused was an endurance act that veered exceptionally close to torture. I like changing gears, so I don’t get bored, so it never feels like work. It feels busy, it often feels insurmountable, but it’s never boring. And I hate being bored.

You’re pretty active on social media—from tweets calling out racism and homophobia, to cute Instagram posts about your family, friends and partner, Scott Spark. What’s the significance of this form of public-facing connection?
Writing is pretty solitary and if I’m working from home, it’s usually just me and the laptop for the entire day. Social media use was really a way to replicate the sense that I could have a conversation with people. But, as my boyfriend and family know, I just really need attention. I’m like a toddler walking into an adult conversation who needs to be told how smart I am; it’s absolutely revolting.

I like changing gears, so I don’t get bored, so it never feels like work. It feels busy, it often feels insurmountable, but it’s never boring. And I hate being bored.

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Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Read every day. Write every day. Treat it like work, not a hobby. Enter every competition, prize and fellowship. Get used to spending hours and hours alone—but also learn to embrace it. Switch off the internet while you write—by force if you need to, using apps like Freedom and Forest. Find friends who share the same goals. Support each other. Then read some more.

How do you practise self-care?
Swim. Cook. See my friends and their kids. (Kids are good at resetting your brain and seeing the world differently.) Spoon my funny, clever and handsome-as-fuck boyfriend while watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means Tony Ayres, Annette Shun Wah, Debbie Lee, Lee Lin Chin and William Yang. It means Penny Wong, Lisa Singh, Tim Soutphommasane and Mehreen Faruqi. It means Elizabeth Chong, Kylie Kwong, Adam Liaw and Poh Ling Yeow. It means Alice Pung, Nam Le, Tom Cho, Eileen Chong and Antonia Hayes. It means Nazeem Hussain, Yumi Stynes, Faustina Agolley, Alex Lee and Beverley Wang. It means Osman Faruqi, Gabrielle Chan and Bhakthi Puvanenthiran. It means Corrie Chen, Jiao Chen and Que Minh Luu. It means Fi Choi, Remy Hii, Amanda Ma, Chris Pang, Kimie Tsukakoshi and Takaya Honda. It’s everyone else Liminal has profiled so far and a fuckload more.

You get the idea.

Increasingly, Asian-Australians are starting to realise that sense of lacking authenticity with which we grew up doesn’t apply any longer. Some of us speak half a dozen languages; some of us speak only one. It’s all valid, and all part of a mix that’s authentically and uniquely ours. Asian-Australians are a community and identity with a history unto ourselves, and screw anyone who challenges us on it.

Asian-Australians aren’t a monolith. But we also all know to rinse our dishes and leave our shoes at the door, because we’re not goddamned animals.

Asian-Australians are a community and identity with a history unto ourselves, and screw anyone who challenges us on it.

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Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez
Photographs by Leah Jing


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