Benjamin Law is one of those writers who, when you mention his name to those in the know, evokes exclamations of warm enthusiasm. Within the writing community, and among readers of the ultra-hip Frankie magazine, where Law has long been a senior writer, he is, quite simply, loved. With good reason: his writing is laugh-out-loud funny, deeply moving and razor-sharp smart. Now, his small but devoted fan base is about to grow, with the publication of his first book, The Family Law, a loosely linked collection of stories about growing up with his eccentric, lovable family. Marieke Hardy, Law’s Frankie colleague and long-time fan, spoke to him for Readings' New Australian Writing feature series about his book, his writing, andof course, his family.
It is odd, after reading glorious sample after glorious sample of Benjamin Law’s pithy, stark, delightfully graphic prose (torn vaginas * ,anybody? Teaching your Malaysian migrant mother the word ‘c@#t’?), to find the man in person such a sweet, wholesome type of chap. Butter wouldn’t melt. Smegma might, obviously, which would no doubt lead into yet another brilliant exploration of sticky honesty that Ben does so well. In his debut collection of essays, The Family Law, Ben takes the reader by the latex glove and leads them through a not entirely sanitary maze of domestic chaos, sibling battlegrounds, and the sort of intimate descriptions of bodily functions that might make Tracey Emin pull a face and say ‘steady on, I just ate my supper’.
Law himself seems unfazed by the thought of splashing his dirty laundry across the page, and insists that nothing about the book is exaggerated. ‘You don’t have to manufacture drama in my family. Just put any two members in the same room, and it’s like a chemistry experiment – something will happen. Or perhaps it’s an experiment in zoology. Shark versus squid, that type of thing’.
Ben and I first became aware of each other’s work when both regularly contributing to the gorgeous ‘sharp, witty, everyday and anecdotal’ Frankie magazine. Initially shy in correspondence, our online banter soon became freeform and relentless; a friendship blossoming through a desire to both impress and shock. Through our written work – not only for Frankie, but also, in Ben’s case publications such as The Monthly and The Big Issue – we both enjoy a flirtation with what author David Sedaris refers to as ‘the illusion of intimacy’. Allowing readers in to a degree that – to the observer – may appear dangerous to the author’s privacy, or lack thereof.
But it’s one thing for Law to reveal gasp-inducing facts about his own sex life and personal bathroom habits (to say any more would, I’m afraid, be what’s known in the industry as a ‘spoiler’), quite another altogether to drag in extended family members. Law’s brothers and sisters get the full going-over in The Family Law, and his mother and father seem to fare in similarly raw terms.
Ben admits that ‘for most families, I imagine discussing your parents’ divorce, your burgeoning homosexuality and graphic depictions of childbirth would be off-limits. That’s not so much with my family. Anyone who’s met my mother can pinpoint the exact moment she first used the words “uterus” and “vagina” in conversation with them – and usually, it was within the first few minutes of meeting each other. So she’s been a good role model for being open and honest with people.’
All six of Law’s immediate family members were invited to read drafts of The Family Law, yet most of the changes they requested were apparently only to do with grammar and spelling. ‘Of course,’ says Ben, ‘I leave some details out. But that’s not really from self-censorship. It’s more because I think certain details or stories would bore people. And I hate to bore people. It’s the attention-needy homosexual in me. I like to entertain’.
Don’t be afraid, after all this talk of vaginas and childbirth, that this gorgeous book is simply a glued-together collection of salty cursing and graphic descriptions of bodily functions. Oh dear, you’d be missing the gloriousness entirely. Beyond all, there is an easily recognisable course of adolescence, of family affection and shared experience. Being horrified by Stephen King’s fright film It with an older brother, or holding a night-fill job at Big W. These are all moments we’ve lived, or moments like them, and how lucky we are that the pen of Ben Law has taken to our collective memories in such a rich and evocative fashion.
The Family Law is a very funny book – outrageously funny, in parts so devilish the reader startles from the page with a guilty gasp – but there is also an intensely human vulnerability pulsating beneath. Ben can see the inherent moments of dark humour in the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, but doesn’t shy away from the sadness, the frailty of those involved. In ‘Sleep Cancer’ he tells us of his mother’s nocturnal habits after the divorce. ‘If she wasn’t sleeping for most of the day, she would remain awake for hours on end, watching late-night movies on SBS until the after-hours broadcasting signal kicked in, after which, she’d tune into infomercials for the exercise and julienne machines.’ When Ben and his siblings complain about the lack of structure in the house, of being late for school and constantly disorganised, they are told solemnly that their mother has ‘sleep cancer’.
‘It’s like an illness,’ she’s explained, one hand on the wheel. ‘I go to sleep, but when I do, it’s so hard to wake up. It’s like cancer.’
‘*You do* not have cancer,’ I said. ‘That’s a tasteless thing to say.’
‘I didn’t say I had cancer,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it just feels like I’m dying, that’s all.’
Law is clearly inspired by the work of fellow humourist David Sedaris, and there are strong thematic similarities in their work. Generationally they may be completely different – Ben is a child of the computer age – but Law says he has always related to Sedaris and how he sees the world. Both from large families, both are homosexuals with a migrant parent and ‘a damn quotable mother’. It won’t surprise anyone that Sedaris’s entire back catalogue is stacked neatly near Law’s desk.
There are other essayists who Ben professes to adore – Helen Garner, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Susan Orlean, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen – but he states ‘Sedaris walks that wonderful line between stand-up comedian and literary writer, and has made the idea of “essay” less scary to people. That’s a good thing’.
I’m a friend of Ben’s, yes, but I am also an unabashed fan. When we spoke together recently on a panel for the Williamstown Literary Festival, I was moved by his commitment to warmth and truth in his writing. He teases without being cruel, lifts the lid on human frailty without sticking the boot in. I so admire his biting wit and his ability to permeate slightly shocking personal anecdotes with compassion and depth. That he has looked to the people closest to him for inspiration and created a piece of work that is both touching and deeply funny is a huge achievement.
There are very few Australian essayists who have the ability to make one LOL – which I believe is the correct term for someone of my increasingly idiotic generation – and I feel so blessed that Ben has momentarily pried his talent from brief and inviting pieces in local magazines to focus on this particular collection of work. The fact that his next project is purported to be a first-person adventure journalism book entitled ‘Gaysia’ is even more reason to celebrate. Regardless of which subject Ben chooses to dissect in his inimitable fashion, there is no doubt he will remain indebted to his roots. And indeed, in his own words:
‘My folks always come first. Despite all the odds, they firmly remain my favourite people in the world. They’re alright, my family’.
*And no, I can’t say I ever envisaged my first ever piece for Readings containing the colourfully evocative term ‘torn vagina’ either. I’m sorry, mother. – MH
The wit and wisdom of Marieke Hardy can be variously found in Frankie, on ABC TV’s The First Tuesday Book Club, on Triple J with The Doctor, and other random quality outlets.