Benjamin Law is a freelance writer living in Brisbane. His debut book The Family Law was published by Black Inc. Books in 2010 and Matchbox Pictures have bought the rights to make it into a TV series. Benjamin writes for Frankie magazine, contributes to such notables as The Big Issue, The Monthly, Cleo, Crikey, New Matilda, Kill Your Darlings and ABC’s The Drum Unleashed and his essays have appeared in The Best Australian Essays. Benjamin chats to Clare Strahan about his essay in Overland 203, ‘Only disconnect‘, the travails of being overseas during a natural disaster, the blessedness of Twitter, accepting what you can’t change and the potentially hostile territory he’s soon to explore researching for his second nonfiction book, looking at queer people and communities throughout Asia.
Is it better or worse to be travelling on a train from Delhi to Bangalore during a natural disaster in Australia?
Ah, that’s a hard question. I mean, a part of me really wishes I was in Brisbane because I’ve lived in Brisbane for ten years now, so it’s really what I consider to be home. And I was in India because I was doing research for the second book that I’m writing that you mentioned before. And I really didn’t expect anything to happen while I was away. Brisbane is the type of town where it’s, er … you know I think a part of its appeal is its sense of non-drama; the fact that not much ever really happens in Brisbane. It’s the third most populated city in Australia but sometimes often thought of as an afterthought as well. And when that sort of disaster strikes your town, you sort of do wish you were here, especially as a writer, you want to see it with your own eyes.
My sister who’s a photo-journalist was also away at the same time and I think there is a little sense of frustration that we weren’t here – not necessarily wanting to be part of a ‘disaster’ or anything, but just being a part of your loved-ones banding together and trying to save their own things. And I guess I like being a fixer; you know if there’s a problem I want to help out, and being on a train like you say, between Delhi and Bangalore, really forced me to accept that sometimes there’s nothing you can do besides check the Twitter feed and you just feel ridiculous. You know, I had my phone stuck into a really bad, gnarly-looking power socket in the side of an Indian train that was sort-of crackling the whole time.
I felt that at the very least, I could shoot out little bits of information and certainly things like how to call the SES and where the evacuation zone was: that seemed to help people. [Benjamin's partner works for the ABC and was able to share up-to-the-minute reports.] That information got spread around on Twitter quite quickly, so at the very least I think … I hope that people might be able to read the piece and realise you don’t necessarily have to be in the heart of some hideous event to be able to help in some way, or to get information across. I mean, I sort-of looked at this whole event with a very very strange lense, being a part of this city but not being there for [the flood]. And, I guess I wanted to convey that strange sense of being completely dislocated from something that feels quite central to you.
So, you describe the pre-flood Brisbane River as ‘big, brown and benign’ is that still the way you see it or have you become suspicious of the river?
Heh. You know it’s funny as I’m talking to you now, Clare, I’m actually on my balcony at my apartment looking at the river and it’s not doing anything! It’s so calm and it’s gentle. It’s funny, right outside my apartment is one of the ferry stops that was washed away, I think parts of it were salvaged and parts of it swept up in the Pacific Ocean and I look at it now and it looks exactly the same. But the thing is, it’s been totally reconstructed, so when I got back to Australia and started doing my work [my office] has a view of the ferry terminal (or what we call City Cats, here), they were ripping out the foundations. You could see how long these poles were embedded into the bedrock of the river. And so this whole thing was being torn apart very very dramatically. But if you came to Brisbane now, and looked at the river and looked at everything surrounding the river, you wouldn’t even suspect that anything had happened.
You can walk around the grass and you can see where, I guess the silt came up to – there’s a bit of a barrier there in terms of what it looks like compared to the grass but everything else looks very very calm and not suspicious. It’s almost bizarre how, again, non-dramatic everything looks. When I got back from India, it didn’t seem to change. Which is almost, I think, a triumph of people banding together and making sure that the recovery process was in place.
I mean, the river in Brisbane is sort-of loved and hated and is sort-of the butt of a lot of jokes sometimes. I think everyone appreciates the river. It’s an extremely old river system. It’s quite wide as well, you know it’s much wider than, say, the Yarra. And it’s a great transport link between a lot of the main points in the city, so you can get everywhere super-quickly by these ferries. It’s not a river you necessarily want to swim in and I think after the floods, especially, they did a lot of tests in the water and, hmmm, it looks okay … you know what I was saying before, it looks okay but apparently in terms of the water quality itself, it’s in much worse shape than it was pre-floods.
Where are you now with your writing practice and will fashion-obsessed Rahul feature in the new book?
Heh. Rahul may be in the book, actually. Rahul is someone I mention in the essay, I think he makes a cameo appearance and is actually quite instrumental in the chapter that I was writing about India. So in the essay that I write about the floods, I was really really anxious and concerned about everyone back in Brisbane, checking my Twitter feed incessantly, and Rahul, this young, fashion-obsessed Indian guy on the train was starting to get upset that I wasn’t talking to him more. Anyway, my book’s about gay people and communities in India and what I found out soon enough through Rahul is that he was also gay, and so he will have another life in a different way through my writing, I think.
So, how’s it going with the new book?
The new book’s going okay. It’s a lot of travelling which I don’t mind. Sometimes it can be a bit tiring and a bit disorientating. But it’s going great. I’ve been talking to a lot of different people. I’ve been travelling through Thailand, China, Japan and India, so far. Getting plenty-sick along the way (as you do when you tend to travel through Asia) and I’m planning the next leg of it now, so I’m actually in the middle of planning to go to Burma to look at the situation with HIV amongst men who have sex with men over there, which is a really big problem, with education, and has some of the highest percentages in terms of the percentage of men who have sex with men who are infected with HIV.
And I’m also going to go to Singapore and Malaysia to look at the ex-Gay Movement. So I think that a lot of the stuff that I’ve done for the book so far has been looking at things where I feel kind of safe, and now I’m going into slightly more hostile territory.
Did you just say the ex-Gay Movement?
The ex-Gay Movement where people believe that through the power of God or Allah or whatever God you subscribe to, your homosexuality can be cured.
Yeah, this something I’ve actually written about for the Monthly before. There’s quite a significant movement in the suburbs of Melbourne that believe the same thing and I find it very interesting. I think that one of the scarier things about the movement is that these people are always extremely friendly and lovely and easy to make friends with, as well. So, there is that tension there. I’m currently talking to several pastors between Malaysia and Singapore about the work they do in this field and it’s quite interesting and a little bit knotty, as well.
We thank you Ben, and send every good wish for your adventures. You can buy Benjamin’s book, The Family Law, here and at all good bookstores.