2019年10月31日 星期四

Australia Letter: Beer With Bella | Benjamin Law

You can learn a lot from an interview. Can you learn more over a drink? Introducing a new series.

Letter 131

Beer With Bella:Benjamin Law

Melinda Josie

You can learn a lot about someone from an interview. But can you learn more over a drink? The Australia Letter introduces a new series, "Beer with Bella," in which one reporter in the Sydney bureau who hates beer but loves chatting (an unfortunate combination) meets interesting Australians over a drink of their choice.

Sign up to get the newsletter in your inbox.


First Impression

The bar where I met author and journalist Benjamin Law is all open windows and classy lighting — what he calls a "bougie bar," except he adds an Australian expletive we all know and love.

He used to be more a beer person, he told me, but this place is close to his home in Sydney, has excellent wine and a good-looking sommelier called Anthony.

We settled into a table by the window.

"I just think I reached the stage in my life where I was like, I'm ready for bougie wine." Mr. Law said, grinning. "I'm leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg style, into my destiny."

An author, journalist and presenter, Benjamin is best known as the mind behind "The Family Law," a television show based on his memoir of the same name about the lives of a Chinese Australian family in Australia's Sunshine Coast. He recently hosted "Waltzing the Dragon," a documentary exploring Chinese Australian history. For many people, his show was the first instance of seeing an Asian Australian story on a major television network.


But before we had a chance to discuss all of that, our conversation derailed into our formative years, writing and multiculturalism.


The Order

A Clare Valley Riesling that supposedly tastes like "dry mineral-y blocks in your mouth." And some spicy cheese because, why not?


The Chat

Because I grew up in an area with immigrants, I've always wondered how it is to grow up somewhere less diverse. Why did your parents decide to settle in Queensland?


I had no idea how white my upbringing was. I went back to my hometown several years ago to help my mum pack up her house and there was like a hijabi woman in the car park and I wanted to race over to her and just like, 'Are you sure you want to be here?'

There was one other Chinese Australian family there. When they were coming out from Hong Kong as newlyweds, Dad was like, oh there's a work opportunity there. And they actually really loved what they saw. It was really clean versus Hong Kong; versus this megalopolis. But it was kind of dead. So Mum had mixed feelings. She was just, like, it's really clean and beautiful. And it's really boring and there's no one to talk to and I have no friends. So it's kind of like it's a beautiful place where my soul will be crushed.

'Let's stay here and raise children!'

Completely. Happy primary school years, not so happy high school years — like my parents' divorce coincided with the rise of Hanson-ism.

It's One Nation heartland where we grew up. Looking back I now realize what it was.

Being a writer can be a structureless existence — how did you make it?

Because I'm the son of entrepreneurial migrants and I've seen how hard both my parents have worked. I don't need to have that lesson. You just see how it works.


I was a pretty anxious teenager. Mental health wasn't necessarily great. And I remember having a really intense anxiety attack about a year into my creative writing degree thinking: What the hell am I doing? I just knew there and then after this panic attack, that I needed to carve my own path.

So I just picked up the phone and rang every Brisbane magazine for work experience. By the time I graduated, I was writing for The Courier Mail, and then making magazines with friends and finding work opportunities. I just remembered thinking, there is no job security; like you have to hustle.

Was it easy to get "The Family Law" made?

I had no plans to write the book "The Family Law." And I had no plans to pitch it as a TV show. That's how insanely lucky and lazy I am. I submitted two stories to an anthology called "Growing Up Asian in Australia," edited by Alice Pung. It was the publisher Chris Feik who sent me an email saying: "Do you have a book idea? I obviously really like your essays."

Internally I was like, no. But me being the son of entrepreneurial migrants I was like, give me three days and I'll have a pitch to you. I was reading a lot of David Sedaris at the time. I pitched a collection. They said yes.

I was really lucky in that production companies for a while felt that there hadn't been Asian-Australian stories onscreen, and in good faith had been looking for them. I was in the right place at the right time.

So I think it's a lot to do with timing and forming little Asian arts mafias.

You've said Australia is behind: What do you think is holding us back?

By and large, we do multiculturalism quite well in this country. And I think we pat ourselves on the back about that. We pride ourselves on our egalitarianism and therefore we're complacent about it. Because that egalitarianism is mistaken for meritocracy. You don't live in a meritocracy if all the gatekeepers are predominately, Anglo able-bodied heterosexual cisgender men. They might feel a little flinch-y at those labels but they've just never had to think of themselves as having labels.

We have a real hand-wringing attitude toward tokenism and I'm like, 'Guys, we have not even achieved tokenism yet.' We really need to be less anxious about tokenism and more anxious about nepotism and exclusion. Those don't seem to be worries about the workplace because those are kind of these invisible, tacitly accepted structures.

I guess I'd describe you as fairly open on social media. How do you process that line between your public persona and who you are inside?

Part of why I use social media a lot is because I have no colleagues and I'm isolated. I need to replicate human interaction — kind of that Tom Hanks in "Castaway" vibe.

We all curate ourselves online. But I actually feel like part of my curating of what I put online is kind of coming at it from a professional way, which is, what's the magazine I'd like to read? Can you give something of value to people?

My social media feed is probably replicating the kind of conversation I'd want to have with a friend. My rules are either inform me or make me laugh.

What's your least favorite thing you've ever written?

Anything that's at least six months old. What's that Zadie Smith quote? To read back on past work is to induce nausea.


The Drink Verdict

"It's unpredictable," Ben said, "I've discovered I'm a dry mineral-y Riesling person which makes me sound like a wanker." He thinks I might be a Riesling person too, he added.

Alas, he's right.

Do you have an idea for who Bella should have a beer with? Send us your suggestions at nytaustralia@nytimes.com. And don't forget to sign up and get the Australia Letter in your inbox.

Need help? Review our newsletter help page or contact us for assistance.

You received this email because you signed up for Australia Letter from The New York Times.

To stop receiving these emails, unsubscribe or manage your email preferences.

Subscribe to The Times


Connect with us on:


Change Your Email|Privacy Policy|Contact Us

The New York Times Company

620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018