Benjamin Law still remembers the first time he was ever published.
He was 17 years old and wrote a passionate letter to Rolling Stone magazine about one of the leaders of the then nascent Australian Republican movement advocating cutting ties with England’s monarchy – Labor’s Jason Yat-Sen Li.
He marvels at how earnest he sounded in the letter. “I was also paid extremely well. After that I thought maybe I should become a writer because the money is great,” he laughs.
I grew up gay and Asian. I’m still gay and Asian. I didn’t see anyone like me in the media or in the arts growing up.
Surprisingly, Law’s dream as a kid was not to become a writer – despite being obsessed with magazines including (some now defunct) titles like HQ, Juice, GQ and Rolling Stone - but to be an actor on the Australian soap Home and Away.
“When have you ever seen Asian people on Home and Away? A weedy gay kid was just not going to fit into Summer Bay,” he laughs.
Law is the creator and writer of SBS show The Family Law, that draws from his own life growing up gay and as one of five kids in an Asian-Australian family in Brisbane. He is also the author of ‘Gaysian’ – a gonzo style travel journalism work chronicling contemporary gay Asian life globally, editor of the Growing up Queer in Australia anthology and author of the Quarterly Essay 'Moral Panic 101' examining media controversy over the ‘Safe Schools' LGBTQIA+ safety program around the time of Australia's 2018 same-sex marriage referendum.
Law says his career (he most recently wrote a play Torch the Place for Melbourne's Belvoir theatre) has been kind of ‘random’ and not one he could have planned.
Good storytelling, original storytelling means you bring something new to the conversation and to the table.
“In some ways maybe I shouldn’t have this career. I grew up gay and Asian. I’m still gay and Asian. I didn’t see anyone like me in the media or in the arts growing up. But in some ways I think they’ve become my assets, not because being gay and Asian is cool and trendy. I mean coronavirus has shown the myth of that,” he said.
“But storytelling requires you to see the world from a different perspective. Good storytelling, original storytelling means you bring something new to the conversation and to the table. If you’ve grown up feeling different and being an outsider, some might see that as a disadvantage but for storytelling, I reckon it is an advantage."
Law started his career as a student reviewer for music magazine Street Press and went on to become an editor of the university student paper. His ambition was to write narrative-style features in the magazines he idolised like Rolling Stone and Frankie. A Frankie essay led to his first big break - being offered to write a story for Growing Up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung. This essay led to his first book deal ‘The Family Law’, chronicling his life growing up as a young kid in Brisbane in the 1990’s, later serialised for television.
“For me it’s really about exploration. I’m an Asian nerd at the end of the day, I really like learning stuff.”
Law says his strategy remains focused on working on projects that speak to him.
“For me it’s really about exploration. I’m an Asian nerd at the end of the day, I really like learning stuff,” he says.
“I didn’t have big dreams, except to be famous on Home and Away, once those dreams disappeared then I was like, I don’t know what I want my future to be!" he laughs.
"That wasn’t a bad thing, because then I was in the mind frame of what’s the next project I want to do? Rather than what I want to be for the rest of my life. The Rest of Your Life is a very long time. I just knew I wanted to work on projects that really appealed to me and I’m really stoked that I have built a body of work, but what I would say to you is just focus on the one thing that gets you really excited and finish it."
Law, who is a judge for the SBS Emerging Writers' competition, says his best advice to writers is to read widely and find a writing community.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who tell me they want to be writers but are not good readers, which is so weird because who would want to be a musician if they didn’t listen to music? Who would want to be an actor if they didn’t watch TV shows?” he says.
Focus on the one thing that gets you really excited and finish it.
2. Seek help
“Find other people who write and want to be writers whose judgement you can trust because if you take it to a family member they’ll just tell you ‘it’s great’ because they love you. You need to find other people who are actually pursuing the task and pursue it side by side, so you feel like you’ve got support.”
3. Embrace your difference
As debates rage on around representation and inequality in the arts, Law says the omission of First Nations and writers of colour from the country’s publishing and media leadership has become even more glaring and urgent.
“[This omission] is going to prevent us from understanding ourselves, our families, our communities, our neighbourhoods, this country - and that has to be there for conversations about our history to conversations about 21st century contemporary Australia,” he said.
Almost half of all Australians have at least one parent born overseas and were first or second generation migrants. First Nations communities belonged to "the oldest continuing civilisation the planet has ever seen". This, Law says, means there is a rich diversity of stories that isn't being reflected in the mainstream or commercial media.
"When people ask me ‘is diversity important?’ I say first of all, we are already diverse, we shouldn’t have to force things on people because the diversity and richness is already there,” he says.
“What’s happened is people are being excluded. In some cases it is actively. In other cases, it is because we are overlooked or it is because there are a lot of white people in charge, and that’s because there is structural racism in our industries, that prevents you from getting a foot in the door.”
“All writing is failure – because you are changing the sentence until you get it right. Don’t worry too much about failing – that’s how you get good and that’s how you get brave. "
Law urges young writers to enter the competition, share their stories, and insert themselves in the Australian narrative.
“If there’s a part of your life you can’t stop thinking about or other people find interesting it’s probably a story worth telling, especially if you have never read that story or seen that story or representation anywhere else."
For those writing about their families, Law advocates getting their permission first: “Your family might have an adverse reaction to your work if you are writing about them, which is why in my case I did get their permission… because I wanted to maintain a relationship with them – but you mightn’t!”. He also says people may be surprised to find their families delighted someone would take the time to write their stories.
Law credits his eclectic career on being raised on a steady diet of everything from SBS arthouse films to commercial combat show Gladiator, and the fact that his parents didn’t see the difference between high and low culture or thought buying books was a waste of money.
“We grew up watching a lot of SBS. You end up watching a lot of arthouse cinema not realising it is arthouse cinema – weird porny French noveau cinema and the hard core queer wave.
“I didn’t know there was this line between trash and art, which has served me well, not being elitist. I didn’t revere this so-called high art but I’m also happy to operate in that sphere as well.”
Law also cites musicians like Tori Amos, Bjork and PJ Harvey as creative idols, despite admitting he does not have a musical bone in his body.
“What they embody is originality and daring. I felt that was something I’ve always aspired to do. I want to create stories and tell stories that haven’t been told before. I want them to be brave. I want them to give no craps.”
“All writing is failure – because you are changing the sentence until you get it right. Don’t worry too much about failing – that’s how you get good and that’s how you get brave.
Benjamin Law is a judge for the SBS Voices Emerging Writers' Competition.
Are you a budding writer? Do you have a story to tell about growing up in diverse Australia? Enter the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition for your chance to kickstart your career. Indigenous writers are encouraged to enter. Entries close September 15. Go to www.sbs.com.au/writers for more information.