AUTHOR Benjamin Law talks to Meld about writing, family, why more Asians should be on Aussie TV, and his new book exploring gay and lesbian culture in Asia.
It’s not uncommon for Benjamin Law to wake with bizarre scribblings on his hand after a night out with friends. Recently, it had been something along the lines of “World of Warcraft. Old people. Love”.
The Family Law author and senior contributor to Frankie magazine has taken time in between moving house to chat with Meld from his hometown of Brisbane. Somehow, the conversation has turned to computer games and geriatric romance.
“World of Warcraft is really big in the elderly community,” he tells me.
“Old people are finding love online through World of Warcraft.”
This, Benjamin is explaining, is one of many little gems of information imparted by the people around him – the main source of inspiration for his writing.
“I sometimes read stuff and I’m like ‘ah, there’s actually a story in that’, or my friends will tell me things in drunken conversations and I write those things down on my hand.”
“It’s like Guy Pierce in Memento,” he quips, in reference to the memory-less, note-writing character from the Hollywood thriller.
“But not as intense.”
At 29 (“a funny, nowhere-ish kind of age”, as he has described it) Benjamin has one book out and another on the way. In addition to Frankie and its men’s spin-off Smith Journal, he has written for The Monthly, Cleo, The Big Issue, AAP and a host of publications in his home state of Queensland.
With his dry, self-deprecating and irreverent humour in tow, his writing ranges from personal reflections on subjects dear to him (family, gay marriage), to witty observations on the more trivial sides of life (typewriters, nude beaches).
The Family Law, released last year and shortlisted for Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards, is a memoir about (not surprisingly) Benjamin’s family.
Benjamin grew up on Queensland’s sunshine coast, as the middle child in a family of five.
His parents had migrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s, in the midst of tension between the British and Chinese over the proposed 1997 handover. In his memoir, Benjamin imagines the situation to have been “like watching two dysfunctional parents fight for their custody, and suspecting your abusive father was going to win out”.
But as he tells Meld, the decision had also been based on a more personal feeling that, in some ways, they did not quite belong.
“One of the reasons they migrated was because they did feel a bit more open-minded than other people,” he says.
To Benjamin’s surprise, his mother, Jenny, received him with open arms when he told her he was gay, attributing his sexuality to “something that went wrong in my womb”.
Jenny is perhaps the most vividly described character in Benjamin’s memoir. She is at once strong-willed and childlike, outrageous and naive.
She explains to her children the intricacies of childbirth, and why no pain a man had experienced could possibly match it.
“Can you imaging squeezing a lemon coming out of your penis-hole?” Benjamin retells it.
“Yes, yes! That’s what it’s like! I’d like to see a man squeeze lemons out of his penis-hole. OUT OF YOUR PENIS-HOLE BENJAMIN.”
Yet Benjamin’s portrait of his mother is at the same time tender. A quaint woman who can curl up and fall asleep anywhere in public, Jenny worries Benjamin when she eventually finds herself living alone in their family home.
Through its description of the Law family members, Benjamin’s memoir also gives a distinct sense of the kind of person he was, and is.
Despite experiencing the typical gut-wrenching insecurities of the teenage years (made worse for Benjamin because, as a gay Asian, he is a “double-barrelled minority”), he seems to have an ability to see the hilarity in even the most solemn or embarrassing of moments.
In hindsight, he can see the humour in his teenage goal of scoring a role on the soapie Home and Away before the age of 15.
“What was striking was how young all the [Home and Away] actors were. In fact, they were nearly all my age,” he writes.
“The fact that none of them were Asian didn’t seem to register at the time.”
Now that it looks likely people will be seeing a TV adaptation of The Family Law in the near future, we get talking about this lack of diversity on Australian screens.
“Even in 2011 there’s still very little Asian-Australian representation on TV,” Benjamin says.
That is, aside from comedian Chris Liley’s satirical character Ricky Wong, the Melbourne University physics student.
“I love Chris Liley and I really love Ricky Wong,” Benjamin says.
“I think for a lot of Chinese people he weirdly, unexpectedly became a cult icon. [Laughs.] I know not everyone agrees with me but I thought it was really good.”
The rights to The Family Law have been sold to Matchbox Pictures, the production company credited with moving Australian TV away from the monocultural with their recent adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap.
Benjamin says he’s excited about the prospect of a TV series of The Family Law, but is cautious to say it’s early days and he’s not sure what will happen.
“It’s sort of heartening that anyone – especially Matchbox – but anyone was interested in the book at all because it’s quite an unusual book,” he says.
“It’s not just the ethnic element but so much about it – the pretty warped sense of humour that my family has – it’s an unconventional story.”
Also in the pipeline is another book, Gaysia (a working title), which explores gay and lesbian culture in Asia.
The book will be very different from The Family Law, Benjamin says. The idea behind it has personal roots – “my friends and I would always just joke that it would be easier to just say that I’m Gaysian, really; you know – gay Asian”. But it seems to be less a personal memoir, more an attempt at a humorous brand of anthropology.
Benjamin has spent the past 18 months travelling between Asia and Australia for research. Though research is perhaps too serious a word for this self-deprecating joker, who prefers to describe his travels as “me going on some strange, unexpected adventures through the continent.”
He has gone backstage at the world’s largest transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand, studied HIV rates in Burma, and hung out with fundamentalists in Malaysia who believe “through Christ or through Allah you can pray the gay away”.
“Lovely people,” he jokes.
Throughout it all, two feelings seem to have emerged for Benjamin, who has been with his boyfriend Scott for a decade. One is a renewed gratitude for his family’s acceptance and support. The other is an admiration for those who aren’t so lucky.
“This book and travelling around in these countries has sort of shown me that that’s a very rare experience in the world, to be able to be accepted by your family and by everyone else,” he says.
“People go through a lot of hell in order to be gay, to identify with what they feel inside. Some of them get electroshock therapy, other people seek religious intervention. Young people in China look for people online to have sham marriages with to prove to their parents that they are married.
“It’s distressingly uncommon to be who you want to be.”
Fans of Benjamin’s writing will have to wait until the second half of the year to read this latest work. But in the meantime, it’s good to know when that when Benjamin opens his eyes in the morning with some strange note about World of Warcraft written on his hand, he’s doing so next to the person he wants to be with.