Very Fine Day #36: Benjamin Law
BENJAMIN LAW is on Very Fine Day today. It was a great conversation. Benjamin is a writer, a screenwriter, and a leader in Australian media. He does write a bit about his family and we got into that: dissecting the ethics and the emotions behind bearing your soul, and also the soul of the people you grew up with and your parents. He’s got a PHD, too, which I did not know. That’s probably a good thing because, look, it's a little intimidating. You don't even have to ask what the PhD is for. It’s just like: well, this person has learned, this person has Been To School.
We unpack what it's like to be the child of immigrants who arrived in Australia in a time where immigration… well let's be honest, immigration to Australia hasn't always been applauded in the way it should be.
But having said that, they settled down on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. And I know there are a lot of international subscribers, so the best analogy I can give you is that it's kind of like Australia's Florida. Even down to the Spring Break stuff and parties and clubs and beaches. Back then it also had that chaotic, not-so-subtle xenophobia. Can I say that? Look, especially back when Benjamins parents first arrived in the country, it wouldn't have been the easiest thing to go through, and we touch on that as well.
VFD: Alright, just hitting record. So, any defamatory statements you want to make: now's the time. Get all of that out.
Benjamin Law: Oh my god, where do I start? Who are my enemies at the moment…
VFD: What have you been doing during the pandemic?
Benjamin Law: Look, I've been really lucky because the TV show that I'm currently working on – which hasn't been announced yet – but I'm working on a TV project and I think it's being fast-tracked and greenlit because of the pandemic. Just because of the logistics around it.
It has actually been nice doing all the things that you can do in TV Land while in lockdown. We can have a writers room: it's all online, it's on zoom. But that's not a huge ball ache. But everything else, like writing stuff, to the editing stage, to the workshop stage, we can do it at our computers. So it's been nice.
Sometimes when you're in writing world it's like: oh, I had to be in the writer's cave. What a shame for me. You resent that everything else is going on outside. But it's been nice. There's no FOMO.
VFD: Yeah. Do you think it'll go back the physical-world version of work? Or is this a shift where you're going to be doing a lot more stuff remotely?
Benjamin Law: I don't know. Fingers crossed that the physical stuff actually coincides with shoots and production. Y’know: when a TV show actually needs people. We didn't engineer it this way, but I think it might actually be OK that the schedule will coincide with lockdown starting to be a bit more generous.
Benjamin Law: That's our hope anyway.
VFD: Can you talk about it at all? What can you say? Written by you?
Benjamin Law: So… yes, I have co-created and I'm co-writing a TV show. It's going to be a comedy drama. I love it.
It’s weird because I've worked in theatre and books, and in theatres, if something’s embargoed, they’re so indiscreet. Like: Oh, it’s embargoed, you can’t tell anyone. And everyone knows everyone’s talking. Whereas television is really intense. They’re like: if you tell anyone we will fucking kill you and you'll be fired. And I have seen similar stuff like that happen where it’s all panic stations. But hopefully you’ll find out soon enough.
VFD: Yeah, I get it. I get it. I don't want you to get killed. So hold on: How long have you been doing the TV stuff now? Almost a decade?
Benjamin Law: It’s funny you say that because the other day I was talking to my boyfriend and I'm like: Oh, I still feel like a noob. I still feel green and wet behind the ears when it comes to television. But yeah, I think I have been doing it for roughly a decade now. And I studied it as part of my post-grad for university. But I didn't think I'd do anything with it because Brisbane didn't have that much TV production to really offer at that stage. But it's getting way better now in Queensland.
And then I wrote a book, the screen rights got sold, and then they're like: oh, could you be in the writers room for that? I'm like: Yeah! I've done it in an academic sense before.
That was probably close to a decade ago now, looking back at it. And it has never been my full-time thing, but now it’s slowly becoming it.
VFD: Do you want it to be a full time thing?
Benjamin Law: Do people of our generation want to be full-time anything? No, I cannot. I do some radio, I still do some print. And I like that. I like changing gears. I think a lot of people are like that at our age too, right? And I don't mind changing gears within the week - I think it keeps me on track – I can use different work as a distraction. It's like: Writing really hard today. But I get to just do some radio, or I get to do some writing while interviewing people in a bit. Something like that.
VFD: Yeah. How long have you been running your own shit, and managing your own life in that way, with multiple projects going on and juggling it all?
Benjamin Law: You have taken me back to my 10 year reunion – which was actually a while ago now. That’s quite concerning. But I remember when I told people: I'm a freelance writer, people would either look at you with admiration or deep abject pity.
VFD: Totally. And you’re not sure who knows more about you and who can see through you better.
Benjamin Law: But I bring that up because I realised I've never had a proper salary job. So on one hand you could be like: Oh, you've been running a ship this entire time. But I think other people would be like: well, you don't live in a real world and you've been technically unemployed for your entire adult life.
But yeah, since I was a teenager – we graduate a little bit younger in Queensland – and going to the Big Smoke of Brisbane at 17 and doing university, I think I already knew that a degree in the arts does not guarantee you a career in the arts. So I was already kind of hustling then and there.
VFD: So you didn't grow up in Brisbane?
Benjamin Law: I grew up on the Sunshine Coast, an hour and a half north. The place that gave us Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan and was really, really big on Pauline Hanson. Good times.
VFD: What was it like growing up there then? Dare I ask.
Benjamin Law: Well, where did you grow up?
VFD: I grew up on the Northern Beaches. Very insular, very white, very middle / upper class. But I grew up in a suburb which was not near a beach and not near the North Shore. So it was technically the “Northern Beaches” and all of your friends surf and stuff, but I would just be riding my bike to the cemetery that my suburb was built around.
Benjamin Law: That's so funny that you set that scene because even though it's so geographically different, you and I might have had very similar childhoods. Similarly, I'm from the Sunshine Coast. And all my friends - and at least all the popular kids - were surfers. But I grew up on the main road, nowhere near water, opposite a shopping centre. The main thing I could hear at night was the blipping of the pedestrian button to cross a road. So it's not really glamorous. And look, to be honest, I had a really good childhood. And then in the 1990s, when One Nation became big, I think things turned. Coincidentally coinciding with my parents divorce. So the young years were really lovely.
VFD: Damn, older age divorce. That's always fun. My parents are divorced, too, but I was maybe four-years-old, so not much memory of it. I feel like that's better, probably.
Benjamin Law: Yeah. It's kind of like how it would have been for my little sister. She's, like: I don’t remember our parents liking each other. And I think for her, maybe, that's a bit easier.
VFD: How did you deal with that, then? With everything happening in the ‘90s and then that kind of personal issue, too?
Benjamin Law: I don't know. I kind of look back and my bigger question is: how did my parents deal with it? I look back on that situation now like: Yeah, grim times for me as a kid. But I’m older than my mum was at that age and she was raising five kids and going through a separation in a country where she barely knew anyone – in a community where everyone was white. And as much as you think you’re the protagonist in your story, you look back and you’re like: Fuck, my parents had a hard time. A really hard time in that period.
My dad basically went bankrupt in that period, my mum was a single mum of five.
VFD: What did your dad do?
Benjamin Law: My dad was a restaurant owner but then he moved into running an independent grocery store for Asian goods. But it was not much foot traffic and it was off the main road and it was during a recession as well. So all of those things conspired together for not a great time for him.
So yeah. I remember it feeling a bit bleak and so wanting to be 17-years-old and graduate from school so I could go to the Big Smoke. But I look back and think: God, as much as it felt bleak for me it was much bleaker for my parents.
VFD: And you said your mum didn’t have any friends. Did they immigrate to Australia?
Benjamin Law: Yeah, my dad and my mom immigrated to Australia in 1975, right from Hong Kong. So she was born in Malaysia, Dad was born in the south of China. And then, as I like to say, they came to Australia and they did what migrants do so well, which is breed a lot. They were not religious, they were just enthusiastic. And they had five kids who ended up, well, get a few beers into me, Brad, and a much bigger Queensland accent comes out. So just kids looking like this and sounding like this, but in a neighbourhood and a media landscape where we are always the odd ones out – and then you turn on the TV and it’s like: Ah, well, we’re definitely the odd ones out throughout the entire country.
When I meet Asian Australians my age and they're like: dude, our school is majority Asian Australian I'm like: What the fuck? I had no idea that was even a possibility.
I’m often rolled out to talk about diversity and inclusion, and sometimes I have Asian Australian friends or colleagues - whether they’re Indian-Australian or Vietnamese-Australian, or whatever. And they're like: Yeah, because TV didn't reflect what my school was like growing up. And my school definitely did reflect what was on TV, which meant that I had a totally fucked up sense of what Australia actually was because my community wasn't really multicultural. And the media wasn't really multicultural as well. Hilarious, looking back.
VFD: When did you realise that? Did you have a moment where you were like: holy shit.
Benjamin Law: I think it was moving to Brisbane, actually. Brisbane is actually a really multicultural city, like all big Australian cities. And I moved there when I was 17, to go to university.
We'd go to Brisbane for a big day trip - drive one and a half hours to Brisbane for school excursions, or to go to Chinatown - and you'd get that sense of that. But I think it was university. I liked going to university. My first year was staying at this residential college where half the students were international students as well. So there was a big sense of the world suddenly coming to you and you being within it.
I say Brisbane is the “Big Smoke” tongue in cheek, but it really did feel like that when I was growing up, and having such a huge, dynamic, multicultural population there. I was just like: Oh, that’s Australia too! I didn’t realise.
VFD: And then what what did you do in uni? Writing? Media?
Benjamin Law: Yeah, I mean it’s weird looking back because there was that option of doing journalism. And I was like: OK, I’m really interested in that. But I wasn’t. I was far more interested in features, right? I love feature journalism, I love magazine journalism, but that main journalism they were teaching, like hard daily news – which I consumed a lot of – really intimidated me. I’m not sure I wanted to be that kind of writer and they were offering another degree as well, which no one had even graduated yet.
VFD: That’s a good sign.
Benjamin Law: Like, when people say: Oh, I wasn’t sure what my career prospects were when I enrolled in this degree. There were no career prospects because no one had even fucking graduated from the degree, which was hilarious, but I liked that they had flexibility and you could still choose things. We still had a lot of foundational journalism subjects. You could do playwriting, you could do screenwriting - both of which I was not good at - which is funny because I ended up doing them professionally. But I did feature writing as well.
I have to say, looking back at the people who did that degree and who worked at it, I know that one person came out of it as a Miles Franklin-nominated novelist, there were several playwrights, a lot of authors. A lot of people came out of that.
VFD: And you say quite a bit that you weren’t good at the playwrighting part of it, and that you weren’t good at the screenwriting part of it, but when did you – I mean – you’re clearly good at writing. Not to boost you up too much, but I think we can look at the evidence and say: He’s good enough.
When did you realise that was the case. Was it a process of failing and trying?
Benjamin Law: Yeah, I'm kind of pleased that I didn't do well at certain subjects at university, in a way, because you need a place to fucking make mistakes. It's not like one of those degrees where they look at your academic record and say: you barely passed so we won't hire you. Like, no editor looks at your your fucking university scores to see whether you have put in your news writing subject. They’re like: I just want to know whether you can write.
VFD: I know, right?
Benjamin Law: But y’know, there’s a whole generation of journos above us and journalism degrees didn’t even exist for their generation. So for them, they don’t care. And I made a lot of mistakes, submitted a lot of shit assignments, and that’s good – because I think that’s the way you do learn as a writer. Just making mistakes. You get better and better.
Like, I don’t think dentistry students have that luxury where they can just drill through someone’s cheek. I think that’s a bad thing from the outset for them.
It’s funny. Do you know the writer John Birmingham? He’s a Brisbane guy as well. And I know that his story is that he just decided one year that he was going to do nothing else but writing. And he just became really, really poor in one year but did nothing else but writing. He submitted work to, like, Penthouse, Playboy, Rolling Stone Magazine. And in that year he became a writer. So that’s one approach. But I think I took the opposite approach: very cautious child of migrants wanting to take things one step at a time. It was more like a pie chart of things that changed over time. I always had other work: I worked in retail, in hospitality, and I worked as a bookseller. For a long time I worked as an academic tutor at university. And then, slowly, writing - which was a really small part of that pie chart of commitments - just grew. And it eventually just took over. But it took probably close to a decade out of uni to do that.
Benjamin Law: It was feature journalism, writing for Frankie magazine, writing columns. The Courier Mail, The Sydney Morning Herald. So by the time I made a living for it, that was probably a decade before now. So it took a while.
VFD: And throughout that period were you like: should I keep doing this? Did you have a backup?
Benjamin Law: It’s funny, my backup plans weren’t so much a different career. I think my backup plans were: what else can I do in writing? So it’s weird that, in that way, I think the outcome of how my life works nowadays – I have written plays, print, TV shows, and I do journalism and radio – and I think that’s a manifestation of the fact that all of those things have at one point been a backup plan. Do you know what I mean?
I wanted to engage in those fields because I was genuinely interested and I still was genuinely invested in all of those realms. But at the same time it was also very cognisant of fear as well, because none of these industries are secure. Coming from a family that went through financial hardship as well, you are aware that the rug could be pulled out from under your feet at any given moment.
So I think part of that is the reason why instead of a backup plan, all the things I do now were just backup plans for each other.
Benjamin Law: At the same time, I'd be happy to become a teacher or something. I've done that before and I quite liked it.
VFD: You teach writing?
Benjamin Law: Yeah, I taught writing for a really long time. A really long time. And y’know what, I actually really liked it.
VFD: How did you stay chill with that?
Benjamin Law: Like, how did I stay relaxed from teaching?
VFD: Yeah, I guess the only context I could compare it to is being an editor and getting a pitch in from someone freelance and you read it and you’re just like: oh, the nicest thing I could tell you is that this is going to take a lot of work. We’re going to have to work on this or I’m going to say “no.” And I imagine as a teacher there's a much higher percentage of that conversation compared to as an editor
Benjamin Law: It’s true. I think the marking was the hardest part, but then I also realised that a lot of people will come into writing courses for different reasons. Some people really sign up because they want to make it as a writer, and then other people have signed up because they’re not sure what to do with their lives. At the end of the day your job is to mark fairly. So you have this criteria, and I’m going to tell you whether you’ve done well by them or not.
I was always really, really happy to have those conversations with students: Hey, if you want to improve, this is great. I was much more interested in the students that didn’t do well academically but who wanted to do better, rather than the students who were doing fine but weren’t really invested in their work, because I was that former student. I was the student who wanted to do better but wasn’t doing really well at university. And I think that it was much more important for me to look out for them because I’m like: hey, don’t freak out that you just got a pass or that you nearly failed. Remember that mistakes are fine. This is a safe place to make mistakes. And it’s writing! All writing is a mistake until you get it right.
VFD: Until someone says: hey, that’s good! And you go: Oh, really? Are you sure?
Benjamin Law: We’re such creatures starved for affection and positive reinforcement.
VFD: Yeah, well. It’s hard not to be cynical. I think for the last 12 months I’ve made a deliberate attempt to be less cynical about my own work and also the work of others.
Benjamin Law: Yeah,
VFD: I think it’s just incredibly easy to fall into it as a trap. Working in media, working in the arts, it’s so much about being open about your own ability and also your own emotions. And what you think you’re capable of.
Benjamin Law: It surprises me that you’d be cynical about your own work because – and this is me being Asian Oprah to you, Brad – but the reason I said “yes” to this immediately is that I always loved your work, especially the stuff with BuzzFeed. It’s like: yeah, of course I’m going to say yes!
VFD: OK, well, we can end the interview there then because we have the one thing I wanted.
Benjamin Law: Haha, of course.
VFD: One thing I wanted to ask you about is how you feel about the amount that is written about how you write about your own life? Because I think I’d be like: Well, everyone fucking writes about their own life. Like, don’t cast me as this biography. Do you feel like this is a veiled way of saying: oh, well, you’re just writing about your own experience…
Benjamin Law: Yeah, of course.
So there are a few dimensions to that conversation in a way, because in autobiographical form I have written a TV show, based on a memoir, that's about my family. There’s a documentary that we made with the ABC, “Waltzing the Dragon,” which is about Chinese Australian history, but you'd look at it through the lens of my family as well. That's clearly autobiographical. And I think there's a conflation between writing stuff about your own life and assuming that it's easy, but I think anyone who has sat and written a column about their life, or written a first-person piece, or tried to write a memoir, knows that it's actually really difficult.
And I'm not saying that other forms of writing aren't difficult. I think it's just this veneer that because it happened, and it happened to you, that it must be easy to write. And for so many reasons and on so many levels.
One: ethical. Two: emotional. But three: from a craft perspective, it's often the most difficult thing to write because you have to do all this other excavating work to understand what that story means and what that story meant to you. Whether you're having a fair perspective on the people involved, and navigating the minefield of their emotions and the ethics of writing about them in the first place.
But that's only been part of my career. So if people want to pigeonhole me as the guy who writes about himself, that's fine, because other people are pigeonholing me as that guy who writes horrible things on Twitter, which is also true! Or they're pigeonholing me as the guy who has ruined Radio National by co-hosting a pop culture show. And that’s also true.
So for me, I’m kind of relaxed if people stereotype me or pigeonhole me, because in a way, if you grew up as a minority or an outsider in this country, people are pigeonholing you. I’m used to that. I don’t have control over that. But as long as people pigeonhole me in different ways, I’m relaxed.
The other part of that conversation is your care factor about what people say about you and your writing in general. And I think the criticism only stings the most if they’re right. When people get it wrong it’s just interesting. When I have written a play or written a TV show that might be inspired by my family – based on things that happened in real life – people will be like: Wow, Benjamin Law, capturing the Asian-Australian experience. And I’m like: I don’t think I went out to fucking capture the Asian-Australian experience??
VFD: How do you feel about that? You mentioned it before: getting rolled out to talk about diversity in media. How do you feel about being that guy as well? And how often do people ask you: Are you alright with this? Before asking: Will you do this?
Benjamin Law: Well, get me on different days and I'll have a completely different response, Brad, because on some days it's fucking all I want. It's all I want to talk about. And it's so important, and it is legitimately important – media diversity - and including people who've been historically erased from the story. That's so paramount.
And on other days, I just want to say to everyone and myself: Just shut the fuck up! Just do the work. I don't want to talk about this anymore, actually. My PhD thesis was partly on media diversity and representation, so I feel like, from that point – and I handed in my thesis in 2009 – up until now, I have literally never stopped talking about this shit. And it's kind of amazing that we've made so much progress and frustrating that we've made so little. Both things can be simultaneously true.
Benjamin Law: And so yeah, when both things can be true, I'm both pleased and honoured to be given the opportunity and platform, and deeply frustrated that I have to talk about it. Because there's other work that I'd prefer to be doing. I'm not sure if that answers your question.
VFD: I think it does. And then to go back to your family and writing about your own experiences – and to the start of it which I assume is the memoir – would that be the first toe in the pool there? What kind of conversations do you have with your family as you’re making that, as you're writing that, and then as you get closer to publishing it? And then as you publish it, and then you realise: oh, holy shit, Oh my God, I hope that these conversations were deep enough that they know what is about to happen.
Benjamin Law: Yeah, totally. I was writing about my family for a long time because I was contributing to Frankie Magazine every month for quite some time. And a lot of those pieces are first-person columns. And then I wrote columns for Good Weekend Magazine for quite some time, which would sometimes feature my family. So I feel like I got to have training wheels every week to be like: Hey, are we OK with this? And: Hey, gonna message my mum: I’m going to write about this are you OK with this? This is the column, what do you think, have I gotten anything wrong?
So by the time the book came around they were kind of used to it. But also, as a writer, it wasn't my intention and it's not very interesting to just say: this is everything that's ever happened in my family. There's so much stuff that has happened in my life that I will never write about. And either it's not interesting or violates privacy, or I'm still making sense of it.
Nowadays, it’s interesting: There were five kids in my family and the three youngest are all storytellers in some way, shape, or form. I’m a screenwriter, my younger sister is a photographer and photojournalist. And my youngest sister is a playwright and screenwriter and an essayist as well. And it's funny that we can all capture our family. And I think there's a shared respect and I think, partly, we are such an open family in some ways and in many ways that other Asian families aren't that it's like: well, I mean, if we're comfortable doing it then why not?
And in some ways my mum, who was a single mum, as a minority for a long time, who didn’t get to engage in the world and was very invisiblised in her own community and her own story. I think she likes the fact that stories are told about her or inspired by her because she’s like: Oh, yeah, that captures what I was feeling at the time. And she kind of loves that she has become a minor celebrity, in a way. So that’s sweet.
VFD: Yeah. Makes me want to write about my mum. I don’t know if she’d like it – she might be like: hey this is not cool. And I’ll just be telling her: No! It’ll be great! You’ll be a minor celebrity and get your story told! It might be a bit different for her.
Benjamin Law: I think every mum has been through a lot, right? Even to be a mum is such a huge thing, and then to be a mum who has survived divorce and has raised kids. They’ve all got a story to tell. And I think the stuff that I have written has been in the spirit of wanting to write a love letter to my family. And I think they have gotten that, and that’s the main thing to me.
VFD: You seem really nice, man. And you seem nice online, too.
Benjamin Law: Oh, that’s sweet.
VFD: And I wanted to ask you if you ever got tired of it? And, firstly, if you feel that way about yourself or if it’s a conscious decision. Are you not full of self doubt like the rest of us and suffering through life one page at a time.
Benjamin Law: That’s so nice that you said that.
VFD: Even my compliment you responded with a compliment!
Benjamin Law: I mean, first of all: I think plenty of people would disagree with you. There are people who are columnists for The Australian or Quadrant Magazine who think I’m a fucking piece of shit. And in some ways they are kind of right. Like, I am a massive piece of shit. But maybe not in the way that they think.
I feel like it’s this combination of being a Queenslander and someone who is specifically Cantonese/Chinese. These are two of the sweariest cultures that ever existed, right? Combine them together and get a drink into me and I'll be swearing and being foul and calling everyone a fucking cunt.
But at the same time, I think at the end of the day so much of my work involves meeting people. And I think I started off when I was doing features and having that really bright eyed, wide-eyed belief that everyone has a story to tell. So give them a break. And no one's a two dimensional cartoon villain. I mean, that's partly true and that's partly not, depending on who you're talking to.
But I’m curious. I actually think nice is easy. So if I come off as nice I think that’s easy. I think the challenge is being kind. Have you seen that tweet, Brad? An American wrote that people on the east coast of America are not nice, but they’re kind. And people on the west coast of America are kind but not nice. And what they meant by that is that nicety is really easy. It’s just manners and giving compliments and making people feel good. But being kind is actually stepping up and being reliable and having integrity and commanding respect.
VFD: Oh yeah. I have family in the south and I definitely get it. I’ve had a plenty of Southern manners and politeness.
Benjamin Law: You’d totally understand then. I think that whole tweet was like: you’ll go to New York City and if you slipped on black ice someone would be like: Oh, that was a fucking stupid thing to do. OK, here’s a band aid. Here’s a hospital. Take care of yourself and don’t be such a fucking idiot. So that’s not nice but it is kind. And I think if someone calls me nice I’m like: thank you, that’s really great. But I think the challenge it beyond that. Like: How do you operate in a world with integrity? How do you stand up for people when it might be hard for you to step alongside them? How do you pull that shit out? And I think it’s all stuff that we’re navigating: what’s worth it and what’s important. So I’ll totally accept the compliment if I come off as nice, but maybe nice is easy as well. And maybe I don’t have to try that hard to be nice.
VFD: Yeah. It’s not the worst thing in the world.
Benjamin Law: That’s true. There’s worse.
VFD: Well, I won't keep you any longer. But thank you so much for having the conversation and taking time out of your day between writing.
Benjamin Law: No, thank you. It's really nice to talk to you.