Inside a cafe in Sydney’s Haymarket, Benjamin Law is hunched over a tiny table, reading. With his slim build and youthful face, the 33-year-old could pass as one of the university students scattered around the cafe catching up on classwork. For someone who often prefers his birthday suit when working, he looks dapper in a white T-shirt, tight beige pants and high-cut boots.
Benjamin Law is the TV screenwriter behind The Family Law, author of three books, (The Family Law, Gaysia and Sh*t Asian Mothers Say) and a journalist, whose writing covers everything from the politics of Pauline Hanson to crystal meth to non-dairy milk. And getting naked – a lot.
“One of my editors at The Good Weekend assigned me a story to do a naked yoga class,” he says, “and then when another story came up that involved nudity, no-one in the office wanted to do it so I was like, sure, I don’t mind. It’s no big deal now.”
So he became the go-to naked guy – “balls out constantly, serial nudist”.
Despite his slight frame, his voice is a deep, sonorous baritone. There is an exuberance and tonality to his speech, a throwback to acting classes he took as a teenager living on the Sunshine Coast, with aspirations of being the first Asian-Australian actor on Home and Away.
“At that age, my dreams were about being a famous actor with no awareness that it wouldn’t work,” he says. In retrospect, he realises that his face, his race and his acting ability were all working against him.
Once he recognised that his looks were not suited to the screen – in his memoir The Family Law he caricatures himself as an Asian man-child with hands like a well-manicured woman – he turned his attention to writing.
“As a child, I was a great reader of books, as a teenager I was a huge reader of magazines. Music magazines had these incredible features that weren’t about music, they were about politics, or sexuality, or identity. By the time I went to university and was deciding what to study, writing seemed like a natural bid.”
And Benjamin Law is a great storyteller. He manages to weave humour into the most unfunny of topics, and his writing provokes reflection and empathy, even when tackling weighty issues like sibling sex abuse.
It is no small task to set down your family history, first in book form, then as a six-part mini series, and not have anyone kill or sue you.
“It’s a really hard thing for one family member to have control over the family story,” he says, acknowledging that his family is “so outrageously supportive of me, it’s sickening”.
The Family Law is about his big, messy Chinese-Australian family of five kids, of which he is the middle child. The collection of personal essays traverses topics from divorce and death to cockroach infestation and his extended family of illegal immigrants. Central to the story is his mother, Jenny, a Chinese-Malaysian immigrant who is prone to over-sharing, especially when it comes to childbirth.
In the SBS series released earlier this year, Jenny (played by Fiona Choi) steals the spotlight with her one-liners and unorthodox advice (‘time for shower, otherwise you’ll grow worms’). Is the real-life Jenny as candid?
Ben laughs. “The show is M rated, but I think my mum is the R rated version of that character.”
As a columnist for The Good Weekend, he recounts aspects of his daily life, such as going camping with his family and baking sourdough bread. Despite the highly personal nature of his writing, he says only a small percentage of his life is shared with the public. “Life’s too big and complicated to condense into a satisfying storyline. So you adapt to get to bigger universal truths about family,” he says. What he aims for is an “emotional resonance” with his audience.
It is this ability to connect with his audience that has seen Benjamin Law become a household name. The first season of The Family Law was so popular – it holds the record for being the most-viewed comedy on SBS On Demand – that the Law family will be returning to TV screens in 2017 for a second season. He is currently working with producers on the script.
The offbeat humour evident in his writing makes his coverage of topics like race and homosexuality engaging rather than moralistic, while his anecdotes paint a perspective that is uniquely his. However, he dismisses the notion that he has built a profile for himself as the gay Asian writer.
“I guess I chose writing but I didn’t choose those other things. It’s not like I set off in the womb thinking, what will my brand be when I claw my way out?”
However, he concedes that he’s proud that someone with his background can be read so widely, “because I didn’t have that when I was growing up. I write like the person I wish I could have read when I was younger”.
He says there’s a lot of material being Asian-Australian and gay that can be used to humorous effect. “My mum says ‘you’re all so lucky you weren’t born really ching-chong, because your eyes are much bigger’, and I’m like ‘Mum, you can’t say that’, but that’s kind of blackly funny, at the same time.
“And similarly with being gay. I was even saying today, my boyfriend and I thought we were going to grow up to be radical but here we are buying indoor plants on the weekend and baking bread. We became Martha Stewart instead.”
Benjamin Law will join Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, Emma Alberici and Drusilla Modjeska in a discussion of Ferrae’s feisty Neapolitan novels on Saturday, May 21, 5.30-6.30 at Sydney Town Hall.