My Australia: Benjamin Law on writing the story he always wanted to read

The writer behind the critically acclaimed book and TV series The Family Law tells SBS News about growing up gay and Asian in Australia.

Benjamin Law.

Benjamin Law. Source: SBS News

‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.

"Growing up Asian-Australian I think is a slightly disorientating experience," author and columnist Benjamin Law tells SBS News.

"Where I was born in coastal Queensland, there weren't that many people who looked like me and my family", the 35-year-old said.

"And because this was pre-internet, the only other image of Australia that I know is through television, and television for a long time was, and arguably still is, pretty monocultural ... You still don't see many people who look like me."

You still don't see many people who look like me [on TV]
Benjamin Law.
Benjamin Law. Source: SBS News

There were are 167,132 second-generation Australians with at least one parent born in China, according to the 2016 census. 

Whether or not it was a reaction to the lack of representation in the media, Law sought to write his own version of teenage suburban life. His best-selling memoir The Family Law was published in 2010. The book is a humorous chronicle of his formative years growing up on the Sunshine Coast, where he lived with four siblings and his Hong Kong-born parents.

The Family Law
The original Family Law on holiday. Source: Benjamin Law

It was turned into a which first screened on SBS in 2016. A second season followed in 2017 and a third season is in production, for release in 2018.

Championing minority rights

His coming-of-age story struck a chord with readers. It spoke to young Australians, and not just those with an Asian background.

"I think what I realise was, partly I was writing the kind of book that I wish I had growing up, which just didn't exist back then, and that's not just about racial identity but about sexual identity as well," Law said.

I was writing the kind of book that I wish I had growing up
A young Benjamin Law 'enjoying' a theme park outing.
A young Benjamin Law 'enjoying' a theme park outing. Source: SBS

Openly gay and now based in Sydney, he has written extensively about sexuality. His 2012 book Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East explores LGBTIQ+ life in Asia, and he has been very vocal about minority rights in Australia, which has often drawn him into controversy.

"I think the Yes vote was a galvanising moment but it also permitted a lot of ugliness to happen … there was a huge increase in anti-LGBTIQ hate crimes through that period of the plebiscite," he said.

"There are still so many conversations that need to be had, in terms of anti-discrimination, people of colour within the queer community, transgender and intersex people, they are minorities within a minority group and they have very specific legal, medical and social demands and requests that should be acknowledged."

Law has a column in the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Weekend magazine and has also written for several other publications. 

On making people laugh and cry

His mother Jenny (played by Jenny Choi in the series) and her inappropriate comments provided plenty of fodder for The Family Law.

Touting her son as the best pick for the new middle school captain, in one scene she urges students to vote for him because "If the Chinese are going to take over Australia, you might as well get used to it". She later bids them a happy Chinese New Year - the year of the rooster - by saying "happy year of cock".

Law said: "One of the things people remark on when they meet real Jenny is 'wow we thought you were exaggerating for the on-screen version' but the real-life version is probably more intense."

While the story has many culturally-specific references, Law says the themes are universal: everyday family moments that most Australians can relate to.

"We decided very early on this was not going to be an 'ethnic comedy' or that the comedy was necessarily about race," he said. 

"The first series is a comedy about the saddest thing ever which is divorce. In terms of how it's written, we'll make you laugh, but only after we've done our best to try to make you cry," he said.

Law's on-screen self

Scoring the lead role in The Family Law was a major breakthrough for Trystan Go, who plays Law in the series.

"My auntie actually saw an ad on Facebook for auditions, so she sent it to me, I sent it to my agent," the 16-year-old told SBS. "So I went into the audience not knowing anything about what to expect."

Benjamin Law, left, and they actor who plays him, Tyrstan Go.
Benjamin Law, left, and they actor who plays him, Tyrstan Go. Source: SBS News

His previous acting experience has been on stage, making his mark as Prince Chulalongkorn in a musical version of The King and I at the Sydney Opera House and a role in comedy web-series Small Town Hackers.

Go will fly to Brisbane to shoot the new series and will have to balance that with his Year 11 schooling.

"The whole acting thing is pretty much a balancing act, you have to juggle schooling, make sure you don't fall behind as well as keeping on top of the script, learning your lines the night before. We have tutors on set so they come whenever I have free time."

Does he worry about being typecast? His first film role in sci-fi action movie Occupation would suggest not, and with musical and singing skills, he's at least one face encouraging diversity on our screens. 

5 min read
Published 26 January 2018 at 1:41pm
By Carol Holmes