Angus Dalton in conversation with Benjamin Law…
Benjamin Law’s parents, Jenny and Danny, fled Hong Kong leading up to the 1997 Chinese takeover of the territory from the British. They arrived in Brisbane as newlyweds, and over the years sixteen family members trickled over to meet them, nursing pregnant bellies and clutching tourist visas. Most of them were deported after the AFP raided their homes during the night. Benjamin and his four siblings grew up in a house he describes as a ‘lasagne of shit’ in a very white Brisbane suburb. They barely saw his work-junkie Dad, who birthed and buried many doomed businesses over the course of their childhood, and their matriarch mother harbours zero reluctance in complaining about her ‘floppy vagina meat’ that her childbearing years have rendered ‘dingly-dangly’. The Law family have endured many straining times.
So what brings them all together?
‘The one thing that really glued the family together when we were growing up was movies. Arthouse, blockbusters, weird European movies with boobs and dicks that we didn’t quite understand, anything,’ says Ben. ‘It’s always really hard to choose one, cause Mum likes arty, sensible films, and my brother is like super hetero and macho and always wants to watch some trashbag blockbuster. But the one film that really brought us together was Borat. I thought it was so smart, the commentary on the media and its investigation of America … and obviously we all just liked the fucken fart jokes. There’s something in there for everyone,’ he says fondly. ‘Although we did just see the last Sacha Baron Cohen film, Grimsby, and-’ he cringes, ‘it was pretty bad. I mean, we all laughed at it, cause you’d have to have brain damage not to, but it’s not smart or clever. Borat was special.’
After years of establishing himself as one of Australia’s snappiest, most voracious and versatile writers (he’s written for basically every Australian publication bar The Daily Telegraph and writes a weekly column for Good Weekend), as of this year Ben has tapped in to the family passion and taken to screen with an SBS TV show based on his memoir The Family Law. The book is collection of vignettes mostly from Ben’s childhood, spliced with his Mum’s frequently ludicrous outbursts about sex, impending death, and her favourite topic: vaginas. ‘Can you imagine squeezing a lemon out of your penis hole?’ She says to Ben one time when he was foolish enough to bring up the subject of his birth. ‘A whole lemon – with the points on each end and everything, except this lemon has limbs. Out of your penis-hole. PENIS. HOLE.’
As you can probably tell, Benjamin’s Mum and the rest of his family life have provided plenty of inspiration for on-screen hilarity. One of the stranger things Ben had to do in the production of the show was cast an actor to play his fourteen-year-old self.
‘We were really aware that we were gonna write a version of my younger self that was heightened for television. So he’s a lovable narcissistic monster who’s completely and diabolically fame-hungry. He was gonna do insanely reprehensible things and we still needed to love him. It was difficult because it was definitely going to be an actor we hadn’t heard of before, because we don’t have many Asian-Australian faces on TV, period. But Trystan Go ticked all the boxes. He totally delivers.’
Ben wrote his PhD thesis on Asian representation on Australian TV, firstly addressing the severe lack of Asian characters, and secondly pointing out a kind of neurotic tendency people have to criticise representations of minorities in our media.
‘The fewer representations there are of a certain demographic, the more anxious people are about whether they’re right or not,’ he says.
This anxiety might be a reason for the lack of diversity on our screens: people are frightened of being disrespectful or accidentally insulting. But Ben is having none of it. He’s pretty irreverent about racial stereotypes; he and his sister co-wrote a book together called Shit Asian Mothers Say, and at one point in his TV show, his mum Jenny refuses a Japanese woman a seat and remarks; ‘The Japanese raped our women during the war.’ And as an afterthought: ‘But they do make lovely stationery.’
As much as the The Family Law is about an Asian-Australian family, Ben believes race isn’t a defining factor of the show. It’s actually just a waggish, witty show about a quirky Brisbane family going through tough times. His parents’ divorce is what most of the drama centres on in the first season, which is odd, as Ben didn’t actually write scene of the divorce in his memoir.
‘It’s interesting, when I was writing the end of the first episode when Jenny kicks Danny out, I realised I was writing it for the first time – I hadn’t included it in the book. When we scripted it, and it was acted and filmed and edited and I saw the first rough cut, I was really moved and affected by it. My parents broke up when I was 12, and I started high school with this fracturing family. They didn’t finalise their divorce until the end of Year 12. It went through my whole high school experience. Horrific. But you know, it makes for good material!’ He laughs.
The show is doing brilliantly; the pilot has over a million views and series 2 is underway. For people who have seen or read The Family Law and want some more of Ben’s wicked writing, Gaysia is a must read. It’s an exploration of gay culture in Asia. Ben visits male-only nudist hotels in Bali and meets the finalists of the world’s biggest beauty pageant for transsexual women in Thailand. He observes people trying to cure homosexuality in Malaysia by asking Jesus nicely, and visits impoverished places like Myanmar where the HIV crisis is, heartbreakingly, thriving. Like all of Ben’s writing, Gaysia is feisty, hilarious, and moving.
‘Gay and trans rights are kind of the last frontier in terms of the civil rights movement,’ he says. ‘Writing Gaysia reminded me that there is no place in the world that has eradicated sexism, racism, homophobia or bigotry. As much I’ve written this book about Asia, you could write it anywhere.’
I challenge him to write the sequel, Austgaylia, an exploration of the queer culture of Oz stretching from the glittery bowels of Oxford Street to the lonely plains of the outback, where Grindr blips are as few and far between as shooting stars. He’ll think about it, he laughs, over the weekend – he’s going camping with the rest of the Laws.
‘I know right, camping?’ he says incredulously. ‘It was my brother’s idea. I was like, Asians don’t camp! But whatever. It’ll make a good story if I barely make it back alive.’