Ian Horner 「Benjamin Law: “Our communities aren’t just one colour”」

Posted on January 12, 2016
Trystan Go, Fiona Choi, Anthony Brandon Wong, George Zhao, Karina Lee & Vivian Wei

A new SBS comedy series starting this week tells a family story like none seen before on Aussie screens.

Writer Benjamin Law was born into a big family raised on the Sunshine Coast following their parents’ move from Hong Kong.

Adjustment to Queensland wasn’t easy for mum and dad. It was a culture shock, but mum Jenny especially was nothing if not pragmatic, and hilarious. She hung onto traditional values, expressed with non-traditional eloquence in a language she’d had to pick up late in life – murdering the language but tempering it with wonderful mixed metaphors and riotous images.

The family was also touched by all-too-common family trauma, such as the prospect of their parents’ protracted separations. The question of whether Dad would stay or go hung heavy in the air.

Then there was Benjamin’s looming coming out as a teenager.

But Jenny kept them on the rails. It wasn’t so much her way with words (that just kept them entertained) but her brutal honesty and love for her children.

And therein lies a great book. And now a TV series.

Same Same chatted to Ben as six-part half-hour comedy drama 「The Family Law」 debuts on SBS this Thursday.

Same Same: How closely does 「The Family Law」 series follow your book?

Benjamin Law: The book’s a hodge-podge of stories of my life and family, some from the 1970s when my parents came over from Hong Kong and some right up to the 2000s when I came out.

For the series we had to get to the heart of the story. We condensed the timeframe to one hot summer to focus on my parents’ breakup. In reality their split was very protracted but for the sake of the comedy and the drama we condensed it to one hot Queensland summer where nothing will ever be the same.

We wanted to get to the emotional truth of what it’s like when your parents break up when you’re a teenager and we had to be wildly promiscuous with what actually happened. But keep all the teenage humiliation, terror and hilarity.

In coastal Queensland we were one of just a handful of Chinese Australian families. We immediately became the focus of town gossip. For the show we wanted to nail the uniqueness of being a really big family.

And the audience knows Ben’s gay but Ben isn’t quite aware of it yet! In the trailer there’s a scene where Ben peers through a telescope and there’s every opportunity to perve on the hot sister but the telescope trails down to the hot son who’s doing weights in the garage. In terms of sexuality, the audience is ahead of Ben. More to come in series 2.

What was it like coming out as a Chinese Australian?

I came out at 17, which was quite old to come out. Most people have known for a long time by then. But acknowledging it and coming out are two very different things, right? Now I look back and actually 17 is still rather young. In Queensland we finish high school at 17 and I wanted my first year at university, when I’d be 18, to be the year I’d find a boyfriend! Or, you know, have sex! And that would involve being open and comfortable with my sexuality.

First I came out to my best friend Rebecca which gave me the courage to come out to mum who I wanted to come out to first because, one, I wanted her to know, and, two, if she doesn’t know things first she’ll demolish you!

I told my mum I had something to tell her and couldn’t even get the words out. I burst out into tears, and that’s really frightening for a mum. She had to play this horrible guessing game, What’s Wrong With My Son? Her first guess was “Are you on drugs?” And I said no, thinking we’re on the Sunshine Coast where it was really difficult to get drugs even if I’d wanted them.

The second question was “Have you got Rebecca pregnant?” And I was thinking no, definitely getting colder. And her third was “Are you gay?” And I nodded, afraid of whether she’d be angry, or blame herself, or be upset, or be shocked, you know, and her response was so hilarious. She said “Oh, don’t be silly, there’s nothing wrong with being gay! It just means something went wrong in the womb, that’s all!”

So, you know, in her way, she was totally accepting and acknowledging the fact that I’m completely deformed! [laughs]

Oh my God.

I was relieved because I knew my mum well enough. In her way, and in her language, and in her framework, it was just her saying, yeah, it’s like being left-handed. It was a confused way of saying it, it was a hilarious way of expressing it, but I totally knew what she was saying.

For a woman of her generation and background it was her way of telling me she had no problem whatsoever with me being gay. And she doesn’t! In fact, she likes my boyfriend better than she likes me!

Since then how have you found being gay and an Asian-Australian?

My boyfriend and I moved to Sydney a couple of years ago and it feels like the gay Asians run this town! [laughs] It’s a pretty great city to be Asian and gay.

But if I was single it’d be hard. I have single gay Asian friends and the online sexual racism is quite shocking and confronting. I think it reflects a sort of person who, one, hasn’t travelled very much and, two, well, gays, including myself, are not immune from being prejudiced. We forget that sometimes. Just because we’re part of a minority doesn’t mean we can’t be prejudiced ourselves. It’s something to acknowledge.

If there were more Asian Australians in Australian media prejudice would be rarer. What we find attractive or hot is regulated and mediated by the images of what’s presented to us as sexy.

Even gay magazines present a sea of white on their covers. When we aren’t shown images of people in all their diversity we’ve got a very narrow view of what’s attractive. One of the things I’m happy about 「The Family Law」 is we’ve got a majority Asian cast – very rare in Australian media.

You watch breakfast television – it’s a sea of white. Most of our drama in Australia – a sea of white. We don’t see our Arab Australians on screen. We don’t see our brown Australians, or our yellow Australians. It limits our scope in what we see as Australian. And attractive.

The commercial networks didn’t have the courage to do your show?

We knew it wasn’t a commercial product, not because of race but tone. I don’t think commercial stations would use an opening sequence of a woman monologuing about what happens to her vagina during childbirth, no matter what race she was! Hopefully, it’s changing. You know, Channel 9 has 「Love Child」 with Miranda Tapsell. That one of our biggest commercial TV drama stars is Aboriginal is huge. It should’ve happened a long time ago but I’m glad it’s happening now.

I think in the US especially, where we see African American female leads in 「Scandal」 [Kerry Washington] and 「How to Get Away with Murder」 [Viola Davis], they’re realising the commercial imperative of coloured faces on screen.

One of the biggest demographics of free-to-air TV in the States is African Americans. Other demographics are migrating to streaming services. There’s a commercial imperative to getting diversity on screen. Given that one in 10 Australians has Asian background you might want to consider us a valuable demographic too! [laughs]

But every Australian – gay, straight, queer, white, non-white, indigenous or otherwise, disabled or otherwise – people are wanting to see their workplaces, their communities, their friendship circles reflected back at them on screen, especially if you live in Australian cities. Our communities aren’t just one colour. We want to see that.

How did your family react to the show?

They’ve seen the trailer and rough cuts. We’re gonna watch the first ep together tonight. I’m flying up to Brisbane for it. I think they’re gonna laugh, they might cry.

Are they gonna hit you?

Probably. I’ll sedate them with alcohol and maybe barbiturates.

The million-dollar question: Is your mum as loud as you paint her?

OMG, she’s worse. In reality, she’s R-rated. The show is the prime-time version. Yes, we can get away with her describing her vagina during childbirth on SBS at 8.30pm but could we get away with how she talks about sex? I’m not too sure.

She’s pretty frank. When we were growing up she’d tell our sisters to make sure they washed thoroughly downstairs or they’d start to grow worms inside their vaginas!

How do you feel about your mum usurping your story as the main character?

LOL! It’s the way it should be. As in real life, Jenny gets all the best lines, because she’s the best mum.

「The Family Law」 debuts on SBS TV this Thursday 14 January at 8.30pm.

SBSAustralia 「The Family Law: Opening Scene」 - posted on January 28, 2016.

NB: Le bouquin,『The Family Law』, dont est issue la série, est publié en France par Les éditions Belfond sous le titre『Les Lois de la famille』:-/

「The Family Law」
Official Website: http://www.sbs.com.au/programs/the-family-law