Wednesday, June 2, 2010
An interview with Benjamin Law
1. Describe your book in three words…
Heartfelt. Obscene. Slitoris.*
2. How would you describe your family?
I come from the Law family, a bunch of second generation Chinese-Australians: two parents; five kids. We grew up in Coastal Queensland, even though my mother hated how sandy the beach was, and my father believed that wearing thongs would unnaturally split our toes.
My book documents growing up alongside my four siblings as we all navigated our way through our parents’ divorce, amongst other things. It’s sort of like the Wonder Years meets The Squid and the Whale, crossed with David Sedaris, except everyone eats rice.
The short answer? Well, my family makes for great material.
In all honestly, I didn’t actually realise this until I started writing for frankie, a magazine I’ve been with for the last six years. Louise, my editor at the time, asked all the senior contributors to write a column called “My Mother’s Advice.” This was my first paragraph:
As a Chinese immigrant, my mother often gave us kids advice that sounded horrific, weird or offensive when translated to English, or taken out of cultural context. One of the most mortifying examples is something she often said to my sisters if they hadn’t showered yet, which directly translated to: “Go have a shower now, or your vagina will breed worms.
Needless to say, it spoke to people, and I’ve kept on writing about them all.
Admittedly, I sometimes struggle with the ethics of writing about people in my life. But then one of my family members says or does something so intensely funny or foul that I think, “Hell, it would be irresponsible not to write about you.”
My older brother Andrew is awesome, but we are poles apart.
He beefs up at the gym; I’m medically underweight. He’s sporty and über-heterosexual; I’m a book-reading poof. We were arch nemeses growing up, but because we were the only boys in our family, we were forced to share a 3.5m-cubed cell bedroom for 16 years. Growing up, my fights with him would involve him tickling me to the point of tears, and me spitting and scratching at him, cat-like. This is all documented in the book.
5. Has your family read the book? If so, what have been their reactions?
Because of my frankie articles, I’m quite used to passing drafts of my work to family if they’re depicted in a story. Partly, it's about getting their permission, but it's also a practical thing: I want to ensure I have details correct, or at least, have them verify what happened.
(I have a horrible short to medium-term memory. Everyone who knows me will tell you this.)
All of my family members laugh and say wonderful things about the stories. But inside, I’m sure they’re all completely and thoroughly horrified. As I would be too.
My mother, Jenny, is one-of-a-kind. She’s probably the family member I write most about. She separated from my father when we were all really young (between the ages of four and 18), and decided to approach motherhood pretty much solo, with five kids in tow.
It’s only later in life that you start to appreciate what that actually means.
Nowadays, she’s feisty, quotable and incredible frank. If she discusses her vagina and childbirth within the first few minutes of meeting you, this means she likes you.
7. What is your favourite essay or story from within the book?
I can’t pinpoint my favourite piece from the book, but I really loved writing ‘Oceans Apart,’ which is about my father.
Ever since he moved to Australia, my dad has worked seven days a week, 365 days a year — right through Christmas. He’s an amazing machine, but it’s hard to really know someone who’s removed from your life like that.
Writing that story meant I had to interview him to fill in my gaps about his life. And once you read the story, you’ll discover (as I did) that what happened in those gaps is quite remarkable.
Like a lot of migrant fathers, my dad’s a workaholic both blessed and cursed with the heart of an ambitious, mad entrepreneur. He works like an goddamned ox, and has seen both dizzying successes and crippling lows in the world of retail and hospitality. It definitely made for an interesting childhood.
The workaholism extends to this day, so we all worry about him a lot. But it’s also made us all quite disciplined. Even though the five kids are different (school teacher; tender coordinator; photographer; two writers), we’re all sort of workaholics too. Dad’s probably responsible for that. Or maybe it’s just because we’re Asian.
9. You paint a very vivid picture of your younger self – was it difficult to be so brutally honest about your early life and early self?
Oh look, I basically see my life as a 27-year history of embarrassments and failures. Writing about all the horrid, unforgivable things I’ve done and said over the years is a way of spreading the mortification around, really.
10. What was it like growing up with so many sisters?
I have three sisters. As a result, I grew up amongst robust discussions about menstrual cycles, sanitary napkins and vaginal discharge around the dinner table. These discussions continue to this day. It goes without saying that I think my sisters are wonderful people.
11. What other works have influenced your writing?
Anyone who’s read my stuff could guess that I’m a big fan of David Sedaris. I remember first reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in my early 20s, and desperately wanting to be his friend. We’re from completely different backgrounds and generations, but he just spoke to me: big family; migrant parent; homosexuality; lots of sisters; quotable mother. So it won't surprise anyone that Sedaris’s entire back catalogue is stacked neatly near my desk.
I read a lot of fiction, but my first love is non-fiction. In terms of essay writing, I really love Joan Didion, Helen Garner, Zadie Smith, Augusten Burroughs, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.
But what I adore about Sedaris is how he walks that wonderful line between stand-up comedy and literary writing. For such a lightly spoken man, he’s a bad-arse genius.
12. What was the hardest part about writing the book?
Editing out all the poo jokes.
13. Who will enjoy reading this book?
Anyone who comes from a big, dysfunctional, migrant, Asian or foul-mouthed family should enjoy this book. Actually, scrap that: I hope anyone who comes from a family – period – enjoys this book. Although, if you’re easily offended by vagina and vomit references, perhaps this mightn’t be your thing.
* This will make sense after you read the first story.