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Fri 15 May 2020

Turning your life into material with Benjamin Law

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Writer, journalist, broadcaster and all-round polymath Benjamin Law talks diversity on Australian screens, storytelling and how to draw narrative inspiration from your own life

Benjamin Law helped bring some much needed diversity to Australian screens when his 2014 book, The Family Law, was adapted for television.

As he tells Denise Eriksen from Media Monitors in this interview, "When I turned on the television there were very few Asian Australian faces on television, so that just gave me the impression from my neighbourhood and my access to the media, because it was largely pre-internet, that Australia must just be all-white and even by that stage we must've been one of the most multicultural nations on the planet."

Thanks to creatives like Benjamin, Australia is finally seeing an increase in on-screen diversity that more truthfully reflects our national character, but he also has tips for turning your own life into a story worth of the screen.

Running Free is a series of screen-related interviews for up and coming industry professionals, presented by Media Monitors and ACMI on YouTube.

I really do think that when you're a storyteller, and that's what the media and the arts are, you do have a responsibility to tell the stories and a full range and diversity of what those stories actually are out there.

Benjamin Law

About Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is an Australian writer and broadcaster. He created and co-wrote three seasons of the award-winning SBS TV series The Family Law, based on his memoir, and his debut play Torch the Place ran February–March 2020. Every week, Benjamin co-hosts ABC RN’s weekly national pop culture show Stop Everything and interviews public figures for Good Weekend. He also co-hosts online startup and tech TV show That Startup Show.

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Esther Coleman-Hawkins: So Denise, I reckon my family story would be fascinating

Denise Eriksen: What? You're from the north of England, what do you mean?

ECH: Exactly. We could break new ground, you know. People think we're as thick as two short planks. We wear flat caps. We race whippets ...

DE: Yeah, but that's all true isn't it? No, Benjamin Law, like he's got a genuinely fascinating story to tell. And he's about to tell us what it feels like to have that out in the public domain.

ECH: Ey up.

DE: Ey up, indeed.

Today our guest on Running Free is actually one of my personal heroes, I have to admit it. Benjamin Law. He's a writer, a journalist, a researcher a radio broadcaster, and he co-hosts, Stop Everything a pop culture show on Radio National but I've always found him funny and smart and clever. Hello Benjamin, my personal hero.

Benjamin Law: Hi Denise. Thank you so much for taking the $1,000 check we arranged prior, to say all those lovely things about me.

DE: So, easy. I was so happy to bank it actually, I bloody mean it. Tragic. But yeah ...

BL: Lovely. Thank you so much. Also, by the way, when you introduced me with all that roll call of things that I actually do for a living, first of all thank you for saying I'm not a comedian. Not that I don't have anything against comedians. It's just often people call me a comedian. I'm like, "have I done standup?" But you also pointed out "researcher", which often people don't know about me, but I have been a researcher in a lot of my work. I still am, but a lot of people often skip that. So I actually liked that you brought that up.

DE: Well good. Because it was actually one of the things that we are going to talk a little bit about, your research, but that comes later because actually you're... I want to understand what's involved in telling your personal stories because so many of us think that we have a personal story in us and, and you've had an amazing personal story which you've shared on virtually every platform. So, that's what we're going to talk about as a micro skill today.

BL: Let's dig deep, well...

DE: Who are you? What's your background? And we've only got half an hour, so make it brief.

BL: Well, look, this is a good question for anyone who's listened in and going, "Who is this guy and why am I listening?" But so I'm ... I mean, so all those things that you said I am writer ... Look when I put down on a form what my occupation is, I usually just say writer. Writer and broadcaster is the easiest way, but to be honest, you know what I do and where I've come from ... The shortest answer is, I'm like that little weedy gay Asian-Australian kid in most Australian suburbs who had dreams of something big, Denise, and those dreams were to be an actor on Home and Away. And when that didn't turn out, I tried writing and it's ... and it's worked out great, actually. `

DE: What were the barriers to you becoming an actor on Home and Away.

BL: Ah, you know, my face, my lack of acting ability. You know, the fact that I grew up in like a coastal suburb in Queensland that was not near the, you know, the film and TV industry whatsoever. Also, I'm not a good actor. When I was growing up as well, like, I'm totally happy with how I look now, but I can honestly say I was one of the rattiest, strangest looking kids. You know, I had really bad acne. My mouth was just full of orthodontics. That is not a face that belonged on Home and Away, quite frankly.

DE: Actually, there was sort of a little bit of a serious intent behind that question because equally from your cultural background, it was probably always going to be a barrier to get you, you know, onto Home and Away. And is that sort of one of the motivations that led you to telling your own stories in the way in which you do?

BL: Of course. I mean, growing up, the funny thing was we were one of the very few Asian-Australian families in my neighbourhood. And when I turned on the television there were very few Asian-Australian faces on television. So that just gave me the impression from my neighbourhood and my access to the media, because it was a largely pre-Internet that Australia must've just been all white. And even by that stage we were one of the most multicultural nations on the planet. And so now that I now live in cities and I understand what multiculturalism actually is in this country – you know, like one in five of us speak languages, other than English at home; a quarter of us were born overseas – with that in mind, I think there's a huge kind of discrepancy between our neighbourhoods, our workplaces, our communities, our schools, versus what we actually present on television. And for some people that that might not be a big issue but I really do think that when you're a storyteller and that's what the media and the arts are, you do have a responsibility to tell the stories in the full range and diversity of what those stories actually are out there.

DE: And of course, you sort of burst into my life and probably the lives of many, many Australians through The Family Law. We're going to just play a little at clip here first because I don't believe anybody on the planet hasn't seen it, but here's a trailer for the third season. Let's have a look at this.

DE: What led you to write The Family Law?

BL: Well ...

DE: The book I guess, is the first question.

BL: I mean, this probably is an indication of how unambitious I am in some ways, because I actually didn't have any ideas to write The Family Law as a book. I submitted two essays to an anthology group, 'Growing up Asian in Australia'. And I was like, "Oh yeah, I grew up Asian in Australia, I'll just write to that." And it was edited by Alice Pung who wrote His Father's Daughter and Unpolished Gem. Really, really fantastic writer and a really dear friend of mine nowadays. And they published both of the essays that I wrote for the book and the publisher, Chris Pike from Black Inc. Books was like, "Do you have a book up your sleeve?" and I absolutely didn't. So of course I said, "Yes". I just, I didn't have an A to Z linear narrative or really a memoir in a traditional form that I wanted to write. But I was reading a lot of David Sedaris at the time, someone who I still love and adore and read everything that he writes, and I was like, "I can't ... I don't think I can write a memoir-memoir but I can write a collection of essays." And then as I was writing it, I realised all the essays were about my family. So it became The Family Law. Very clever play on words, of course. And that's that. And that was the starting point for it becoming a book. And that was a starting point for the book becoming a TV show.

DE: Before we move into the TV show. How did your family take to that? I mean, what negotiations did you do with your family about this exploration of their lives in public?

BL: Well, with the book, it was totally kind of okay because by that stage I was writing for Frankie Magazine, quite a bit. And I was writing about my family quite a bit. And I was learning about the lines that I could and couldn't cross. And I was quite consultative in whatever I wrote about them. I made sure that they got to read a copy. And then I do remember when I got the book contract I'm like, "Hey, guess what everyone, I've got a book contract and they we're like, "Yay." And I'm like, "And it's also about us" And they were like, "Arg, arg". But when I sent them all copies of the manuscript, you know, months before it came out, most of the feedback was about spelling and grammar. That just gives you an idea of what my family's like. And even my dad who, you know ... I hope that I've been fair to him in the book. At the same time, I did worry about what he thought, how I thought I had portrayed him. And he was like, "Look, I have to be honest, I haven't even read the manuscript". Like I've given him months by this stage. And he's like, I probably won't either. It's not because he doesn't care. He's just a very busy man and he's not a big reader. And he's like, "Ah, but if, I understand that if, you know I'd written a book, it'd be different. If your mom had written a book, it'd be different. And I am going to trust you and your readers to hopefully understand the same thing". He was extremely Zen about it. But I do think that the television shows a much more different prospect. You know, books are a bit more of a private experience, but a TV show is quite public. And I think that was another level of confrontation for my family. It was quite intense. But in the end they read the scripts. They loved what they were seeing. They met all the actors. Each of us has like the mini-me version of us out there in terms of the actors that portrayed versions of us. So it's quite cute.

DE: You worked with of course, a brilliant Tony Ayres and Debbie Lee, who, I mean, they're also, but not quite my big heroes as you are, right?

BL: I love both of those people, they're the producers of The Family Law.

DE: Yeah, so how much actual say did you have in how your book was taken and made into that series?

BL: Well, a lot but at the same time, I was also the dumbest person in the room and I don't say that to put myself down. It's just, I didn't come from the world of screen prior to creating and co-writing this show. And so I was really as much as the first season, especially with me writing this TV show. It was this massive education. It felt like a four year degree that was shoved into the making of one season. So with Tony and Debbie, as executive producers with Sophie Miller being the show runner and producer. It was really Sophie, our other producer, Julie Eckersley, really framing what the show would be. And then I would be collaborating with them. You know, television is such a collaborative exercise and I trusted them because I trusted their judgment from day one. I didn't go with Matchbox straight away. There were a few different counter offers about how to make The Family Law from different production companies. But I trusted this company because I knew what were trying to make was the same thing that I was trying to make.

DE: How much drama license is there between the book and the series?

BL: Oh, so much. I mean, most of it's fictionalised in a way. And we decided very early on that we weren't, well, we're not making a documentary, right? And plus the structure of the book is nonexistent. It's a collection of essays. There's no structure to it whatsoever. It's a hot mess. And television is all about structure; three acts, one episode, six episodes over one time period. You know it's very, very, just so how television is constructed. So of course, you know, all of those acts are fictionalised. We brought the show to present day, so that signals straight away that we've departed from my life. And at the same time though, I can confirm that there are some scenes in the show that almost played beat for beat, like they did in real life. And some of the key scenes like my mom kicking my dad out of the house, the way in which the show portrays that is very similar to what happened. The way in which I came out as gay to my parents. I mean like the conversation that happened in real life was such bizarre comedy champagne anyway. We're like, well let's just go straight in the work's already done for us. But of course we're providing a lot of narrative scaffolding around that in order to make sure that as an episode of television, it can really work. You know, real life is kind of a bit more messy and shambolic, than a half hour television comedy. So you've got to create a lot of stuff around that to make sure that it works as a TV show.

DE: And of course the other important sort of aspect of your public storytelling has been you know, your life as a gay man, as a young Asian gay man. And there's a couple of things that I wanted to talk to you about with that. And the first thing is I was really interested, Or I've not read yet, Gaysia [Adventures in the Queer East], is that how you say it? And exploring Asia as a gay man – Why? And tell me about it.

BL: Well, coming out of The Family Law, which was a memoir that I was just writing in my own, at that stage a living room I( didn't have an office) and just focusing on my family and memories for so long. I mean, that is not a recipe for robust mental health. You know what I mean? Like you're cooped up in doors, you're not researching. And the the thing that I really like doing is getting out there and getting other people's stories. And when you're just telling your own story over and over again, and then you're editing your own story, it does kind of feel a bit gross. And for my next project I wanted to get out there, look at other people's lives other people's stories At the same time, the other thing that was happening was I was really interested in a lot of LGBTIQA+ stories from overseas. And a lot of them were in Asia, and also as child of migrants, you also raised with this, what if question, right? Like what if, what would my life have been like if I was born, in my case, in China, where my dad was born or in Malaysia, where my mum was born. What would my life be like if I was in Hong Kong where my cousins live for instance. As a gay person in the 21st century, what does that look like? And so it became this journalistic endeavour not to capture the entirety of the queer experience in Asia, because that's impossible; that would be like asking, "What is it like to be a woman in Australia?" Like the only way that you can do that is to look at different case studies that can't really represent anything beyond themselves but hopefully illuminates something about that particular ... not even just country, but that particular situation. So that was a good maybe two and a half years, I think, from memory, (gosh, it was such a long time ago) of traveling and researching on and off between Australia and Asia.

DE: And I mean, when I was actually researching talking to you today, one of the things that I was really interested in talking to you about is Deep Water, the true story, which was the SBS drama. And I noticed that you were a researcher and I think producer or associate producer, or something like that.

BL: Yeah. So there were actually two projects that were called Deep Water. There was Deep Water, the drama, and there was Deep Water, the real story, which was the feature length documentary that accompanied the drama. So these projects were produced in tandem by Blackfella [Films] to be screened on SBS. And they were about the spate of gay hate crimes between the seventies and the nineties in Sydney that resulted in dozens and dozens of men, queer men, killed in these hate crimes. So there was the drama and I worked on the documentary side of things. I worked as associate producer and researcher going through a lot of archives, police records and things like that. So I became one of those people that you see in, you know micro film detective montage sequences, essentially.

DE: How did you cope with what you were reading and what you were hearing when you were doing that documentary.

BL: Look, I have to admit, there are some things that I saw and encountered in the research process that part of you feels like maybe it would have been better for my mental health if I hadn't had seen that. Because there are things that you really cannot unsee like photographs from crime scenes. When you go to interview people who worked on crime scenes or interview people at morgues and they show you images and you're like, "Whoa, wow, that is, that is really intense". But at the same time as a researcher you do feel that responsibility to bear witness. You know, why are we telling these stories in the first place?

DE: I could talk to you about that one for ages, but I am going to move on now to Torch the Place because it was your first play. And I know that you said in one of the pieces I was reading, that your family were hoarders. So tell me, just summarise Torch the Place for me because it wasn't so much based on your view, on discrimination as such, it was more sort of an internal family problem, wasn't it?

BL: Yeah, of course. So Torch the Place was a play that I wrote for Melbourne Theatre Company and we almost finished it just before coronavirus. We just missed out on having our final bows, but that's okay. We're much luckier than a lot of other productions out there. And it was a play that I wrote because I just love family horror, comedy-dramas. And I love the format of, you know, stories like August: Osage County where it's a family coming together for a reunion and all these fights and secrets and recriminations are gonna come out. Give me a dysfunctional family coming back for a reunion, I'm there. And so I wrote a version of that where the central problem of this family or the central kind of conundrum is hoarding. So, you know, both of my parents as a lot of migrant background parents in Australia, a lot of parents generally, I think, you know held onto a lot of stuff when we were growing up. And part of that comes from that sense of not wanting to waste anything. If you're from a migrant or refugee background, especially you really know the value of stuff. You don't waste things. And then I think another part of that conversation is also about mental health as well. You know, proper hoarding, compulsive hoarding does come from a place of trauma, not just loss, because if that was the case, you know, there wouldn't be wealthy or rich hoarders of which there are plenty. And so I wanted to take this topic that has been looked at and reported but I think mostly in a sensationalised way, to humanise what's actually going on there. You know we've watched reality TV shows with hoarders. We've seen the tabloid news articles about the hoarders down the street, all that sort of stuff. But, what has actually happened to that person and that family for them to actually reach that state. And so it's a very serious conversation. One that braids together big conversations like mental health, real estate, late capitalism, you know, disaster capitalism, big, big conversations. And I think one of the best ways to access big conversations is through comedy, you know. To be able to make really intimidating conversations less intimidating is through laughter. And that's why I wrote a black comedy about all of it.

DE: It's universal stories that you're telling. And that's so much sort of a progression I think from maybe where you started a little bit. Is that fair?

BL: Yeah, you pick up on a really interesting point because I think sometimes when people see a play like Nakkiah's [Lui] work or my work there are going to be aspects of it that are about, in her case Aboriginality, in my case about sexual identity, about ethnicity, but there are some aspects or some ideas that we're trying to approach, that mightn't have anything to do with race or cultural background. And one of the really gratifying things say with The Family Law was how many audience members said "Oh my gosh, thank you for telling my family story". And these are like white people or Greek-Australians or whatever. And you know your immediate instinct is, wait, what are you talking about? But of course for them, they saw what we were trying to make. We wrote a comedy for the first three seasons that was about divorce, and for the third season about coming out. You know, it happened to be an Asian-Australian family and with Torch the Place, what was really gorgeous was I saw many productions of it. You know, I'd be in the crowd seeing how the play was turning out and just hearing conversations of, you know, Jewish women or Greek women saying, "Oh my gosh, you know, that's my, that's our family story". And maybe it really shouldn't be a surprise because I've seen enough shows and TV shows and movies that really feel like something I relate to. And of course the characters are all white, you know but that's basic human empathy and storytelling right? We really showcase the specifics and out of the specifics come these universal resonances and you know, like we don't go to plays with majority white casts and say, "Wow, what a really great representation of white storytelling or what a really great representation of a Caucasian family." It's because we've had enough of those stories, a diversity of those stories where that doesn't really matter so much. And so yes, on one hand I'm really, really cognisant and conscious of the fact that I want to showcase Asian-Australian stories. And at the same time, not conversely, I think simultaneously, I also want to make sure that we're growing the richness of that so that we can tell stories that aren't ostensibly about race as much as those stories also matter, simultaneously.

DE: And for an audience member look like me, I'm just bloody delighted to see the number of fantastic Asian-Australian actors on my screens. I mean, it's ... Anyway, look I could bang on about that as well, but, you know I get so frustrated that it's only white Australian actors and it's just, I think that's what I've loved so much about your work is that you and a whole bunch of people right, you know, like all sorts of people have now brought forward a much more cultural diversity on our screens. And for that, I thank very, very much

BL: Oh, that's very kind Denise. It does remind me, I mean, I was at a summit in New Zealand last year, actually in Auckland. And we were having similar conversations you know, the Kiwis and the Ozzies because you know, the Kiwi storytelling tradition has always incorporated Maui migrant pacquiao right? Like all of these conversations ...

DE: Absolutely

BL: ...represented in their fullness. And I think in Australia maybe ... sometimes I get the sense we're a little bit behind which makes it sound like a race, which it isn't, but there is an imperative that we tell these stories that we all, actually it's not out of charity that we're telling minority stories. We're telling them because we think there's originality there. We think there's important storytelling there, and you know, I think that's represented in audience numbers and box office sales and things like that.

DE: Oh totally. Totally. And as, as a New Zealander that's absolutely how I grew up. And I was bloody thrilled that I did. I'd like to just sort of move to the end of the interview now. Cause I've taken up a lot of your time and we're almost out of it. There are people out there that will have their own stories to tell. I guess my first question is what would you do differently now, if anything and it may not be, about telling your own personal stories on the various platforms that you've told them on.

BL: I don't actually think I would do anything differently and that's not, that's not the same thing as saying I did everything correctly. It's more that the stories that I was telling at that time were the right stories for then, like certainly there are parts of The Family Law the book where I'm like, "Oh my gosh, I really would not write that the same way anymore". That's not the same as saying, "I wish I'd written it differently," because I think it's almost like a tattoo, right? You know that was a time in place and it might not suit you anymore. But it's a reminder that that was the person. And that in my case was the writer that I was at that stage. It's a time capsule. And it reached the people that it could and it affected them in the ways that, that it was meant to.

DE: What's your advice to people. How do people start to tell their own stories? Can you pick on any, I'm sure you're asked this stuff all the time. What do they leave out? How do they start? What do you do?

BL: I think the answer is actually in your question Denise. You have to start. And I think that's one of the scariest things for a lot of people. You know, being faced with the blank page. But what I would really encourage people is, often people try to be super ambitious, like want to write their memoir, which I would say that's kind of like trying to run a marathon before you've really even trained for one. You've got to have smaller goals. So instead of trying to write a book try to write a short essay, that's 600 words, 650 words. See what that feels like. And after you've done that maybe try to write a 1,500 word piece. Try to write lists you know, like 30 things that I wish I had known before I'd turned 21 and make it a fun exercise. So that's the first step, to actually just start, and beyond that it really depends on the kind of story that you're trying to tell. So if you want to get into screenwriting making sure that you've joined the Australian Writers Guild and you know, what resources are out there. If you're into prose or feature writing, or you want to write a book or a novel, you know, get in touch with your state or territory writer's centre. I know that this sounds like it's not mystical stuff anymore. Like I'm giving you resources right? But that's where you have to start. You have to find out, what resources are out there. If you're not going to go to university to study this stuff you know, maybe do a short course or a weekend course or a year course that's delivered online by your state or territory writer's centre and start figuring out ways to do that. You know there are really great books about writing that you can get on top of, but you kind of have to ... I think the biggest advice that I'd give is incorporate it into routine. It's kind of like exercise. You're not going to do it unless it becomes habit. So if you can make it a daily habit and make it an achievable one Not writing a book, but writing an hour a day that's more what you need to aim towards.

DE: That is a brilliant way to end. And I really want to say an enormous, thank you. It's been an absolute privilege talking to you today.

BL: Thanks Denise, thank you. It's been such a joy talking to you.

DE: No, it's been great. So that's it for Running Free for this session. I've got to say thank you to ACMI who have so patiently recorded this and edited it and done everything for us. And don't forget, if you want to know more about what we do at Media Mentors do check out our webpage, which is Thanks again for watching. See you next time.

DE: Thank you Ben,

BL: Thanks Denise.

DE: that was really great.

BL: I loved it.

DE: What a gorgeous chat, really appreciate it.

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