In partnership with the State Library of Victoria, The Garret is hosting ‘The Garret LIVE at the Library’, a series of live podcast events with leading Australian writers in 2018.
Benjamin Law was our second guest. He spoke to our audience about the importance of representation in literature, on-screen and on-stage. He also announced his next work, the Black Inc. anthology Growing Up LGBTQI in Australia.
Benjamin has previously appeared on The Garret, and you can listen to his first interview here.
Anna Burkey: Hello and welcome to this recording of The Garret Live at the Library. Tonight's event is the second Garret Live at the Library, and you can subscribe to the Library's newsletter to find out more about forthcoming Garret Live events this year, and you can also listen to more than 50 in-depth interviews with amazing writers at The Garret Online. Tonight, we have a special guest joining us. Benjamin Law is a journalist, columnist, TV screenwriter, and author of The Family Law, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, and Quarterly Essay 67: Moral Panic 101. The Family Law is now an award-winning SBS TV series that he created and co-writes. Benjamin will be joined this evening by our host Astrid Edwards, who is co-founder of The Garret and director at Bad Producer Productions. Tonight, our panellists will be discussing diversity in literature and the importance of representation onscreen and onstage. Benjamin will also be announcing details of his new book. Please join me in welcoming Benjamin Law and Astrid Edwards.
Astrid Edwards: Thank you for that introduction and Ben, welcome back to The Garret.
Benjamin Law: Thank you so much for having me, Astrid.
ASTRID: This is your second appearance here.
BEN: I know, I love you that much.
ASTRID: I'm going to quote for you, what is my favourite comment ever on The Garret. At the end of your first interview, you said, ‘Why is the cock forest the canon?’ This is a question that has been bugging me since I was a teenager, please explain.
BEN: Okay, so this sounds like a cryptic kind of clue that the Sphinx would give, right? Like, why's the cock forest the canon, but let's actually just break down what I was actually talking about. So we were talking about the important books. The important books that are considered the must-reads of Western literature, or any other literature, and when it's broken down when you read people like Harold Bloom's The Canon, or any kind of like, standard widely accepted version of the most important books, it's always male accounts. And I think that is a cock forest, a schlong factory, a sausage fest. You know, we've kind of been trained, all of us, socialised and cultured not to notice certain things, not to notice over-representation, and I think maybe partly because I was brought up in such a strong matriarchy, you know, I've got three sisters and a mum who was a single mum for most of my life, I noticed when women aren't in the room. I notice when people are missing and maybe as a gay guy as well, I do notice that and maybe that also makes me feel uncomfortable when there aren't any women in the room as well. So, I do notice when women are kind of absent from a list that’s deemed important works, and when it comes down to the crunch, that kind of offends me.
ASTRID: And that's why we love you. Also, the problem with the canon is that it ignores everybody who doesn't write in English as well. Now, when we invited you back to The Garret, we asked you to choose what topic was most important to you.
ASTRID: And you chose, diversity and representation in literature onscreen and onstage.
BEN: I'm such a PC social justice warrior, aren't I?
ASTRID: You really are, but tell us why?
BEN: I think growing up, I didn't notice, and this is how messed up it is. I didn't notice how few people there were in stories, in Australian stories, whether it's on the page or in the screen, that was anything like me. I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, between the 80s and the 90s. So, part of that was like, the thrilling 80s embrace of multiculturalism. So, Sesame Street World Expo came to Brisbane. It was a very important time. And then in the 90s, it was kind of like a snapback because it was the rise of Hanson-ism. And a Hanson point heads in the first time around, she kind of had to strongholds, kind of like the two towers in Lord of the Rings, and one was in Ipswich, and one was in the Sunshine Coast. The Sunshine Coast was, you know, it's a beautiful place but pretty white and pretty racist. And when I was growing up, because I was in such an Anglo-dominant environment, I didn't really know that, I didn't really know how multicultural Australia actually was, because we didn't travel that much outside of our home suburb. And beyond that, Australian television and Australian literature was also pretty Anglo-dominant. I just, oh, well, we must be like the family that's one in a hundred, generally. I didn't know that, you know, Australia is a country that has one in five Australians speaking languages other than English, a quarter of us were born overseas, and almost half of us have at least one parent born overseas, until I travelled outside of my home community. And not seeing anyone who looked like me, I mean, I wasn't aware that that was a problem. Like when we were growing up, we played like a game of Spot the Asian whenever the television was on. It was just kind of like, ‘Oh my God!’ Like it was an event, that when there was an Asian on television, we'd be like, ‘Holy crap! There's like it and they're speaking! They're speaking, and they're speaking English!’ Like that was the biggest test, because you could see Asians on SBS speaking like, Asian languages but to see an Asian person speaking English, mind-blowing. Mind-blowing.
ASTRID: So that's a perfect segue to my next question. Your PhD dealt with the representation of Asian–Australians onscreen.
ASTRID: When did you finish that?
BEN: That's a really good question. I think I've blocked out most of that process of writing a PhD, like, I know that I'm technically a doctor, and I put it on like, my flight records and stuff like that. It doesn't change anything. I think I finished it in 2009.
ASTRID: Okay, because I ask, because it's now 2018. What has changed in that time, and if you were writing a PhD now, would you still have to choose the same topic?
BEN: Probably, but I'd rather about the show that we made. It was mainly looking at the Australian television industry and looking specifically at Asian–Australian representation. And when I wrote it and finished it in 2009, there was just so little of it onscreen to the point where like, I think I probably brought up definitely less than a dozen case studies, because that's all that existed. One of them was the notorious kind of narrative arc in Neighbours during the 90s. Some of you know where I'm going with this. Where the Lim family moved onto Ramsay Street. I think they might have like, that was definitely the first Asian–Australian family, and maybe even the first non-Anglo, but the definitely the first Asian–Australian family. They were supposed to be Hong Kong Chinese. They moved into Ramsay Street, they all had completely different accents and looks, and the whole narrative arc was being accused of barbecuing the neighbourhood dog.
ASTRID: Oh God!
BEN: But of course, they didn't. It was a mistake. Everyone learned that racism is bad, and then they disappeared. Like, that was kind of it, and you know, it's a great message to send out to the Australian Neighbours-viewing population that racism is bad, but it was only a lesson for white people to learn, and once their usefulness had expired, they really needed to get back to Hong Kong—very quickly. I mean, that's where it was, and where it is now, it's changing. When you speak to people in the film and TV industry in this country, there is much more awareness that there is a problem that didn't exist when I was writing my PhD.
ASTRID: I've done a lot of reading about you lately Ben, and-
BEN: Dear God.
ASTRID: It's scary sometimes, but you described growing up without seeing yourself represented in our nation's literature as quietly dehumanising.
ASTRID: Can you explain that for us?
BEN: Well, like for instance, you know, when I was reading Australian stories like we would be reading Henry Lawson, we were kind of like, anything that was kind of brought up between primary school and high school didn't have a family like mine, and television didn't either. Neither did film, and I wasn't aware that this was really problem, because I didn't see whiteness at the time. I just thought that's what everyone looked like and we were different. I didn't know that there were so many other Australians that had my you know, my history, my cultural background that went, you know right up until close to colonisation.
And so, why I said it was quietly dehumanising, is because I wasn't even aware that I was made to feel so, so alone basically, that I couldn't see any of my experiences reflected first as an Asian–Australian person, and then also as a gay person. And then when it was brought up, it was usually as a joke or a punchline, or for someone else's story, you know, just like the Lim family was for someone else's story. They didn't have a story. They were a prop. And you know, that's what I think is really kind of corrosive about that, being used as someone else's prop and not being at the centre of your own story.
ASTRID: I want to talk tonight about the consequences of not seeing your own stories, and to start with your Quarterly Essay, ‘Moral Panic 101’, on equality acceptance, and the Safe Schools scandal, came out at the end of 2017. I'm a massive fan of the Quarterly Essay series. There's about 70 now. This is the second one to make me cry. I don't normally cry in nonfiction but Ben, you made me do it. The opening line of the essay is a question, ‘What makes the 13 year old kill himself?’ Can you tell the audience about the essay, but the consequences that you were talking about?
BEN: Okay. I mean, we talk about representation like it's a cosmetic thing, and to some extent I understand that argument, because we're talking about the media, we're talking about stories, but representation and being felt like you are represented, whether it's in stories, or even in a room that there's someone else who looks like you, has shared your experience, that you're not the only person, that is an extension of a sense of safety. And I guess that's what the Quarterly Essay was about, and it's what they Safe Schools Initiative was about as well, because for a really, really long time, every major political party in Australia has acknowledged and recognised the fact that if you are LGBTIQ or questioning in this country, you have high rates of bullying, you have high rates of school dropout, you have high rates of truancy, and you have high rates of suicidality. That was not controversial to acknowledge that, to the point where it was actually the Conservative government here in the state of Victoria that launched Safe Schools Coalition Victoria, and it was a Conservative advert government that actually launched Safe Schools Coalition Australia. They'll deny that, but it's on the record. It was not a controversial thing until it was made to be by cultural warriors, and as a result, I mean, when you take away resources from teachers, and this was a teacher training resource, despite what so much of the press said that it was gay people teaching kids about queer issues. That was never a mandatory requirement of Safe Schools whatsoever. When you take away responsibilities and resources from adults to protect kids, there are consequences, and the consequences in some cases, are fatal.
ASTRID: It's extraordinary. I do recommend everybody read that essay. What are the areas of representation do you worry about in Australia?
BEN: Oh, like basically everywhere. I mean that sounds ridiculous. But you know, we have a conversation about the business community. This is a conversation that's happening in academia. This is a conversation that's happening in the media. This is a conversation and this is a conversation like, let's step away from, you know, cultural, racial and ethnic representation.
Let's just talk about women, who are not a minority, and where are the women in positions of power. I mean, often a rebuttal that people have is just like, well women are overrepresented in this industry, and this industry, and this industry, but often those industries aren't pulling the levers of power. So where are women in politics? Where are women in boardrooms, that sort of thing, and then beyond that, where are people who look like me, who constitute 1 in 10 Australians also in positions of power? Yes, we are overrepresented in say, the legal fraternity, but where are the Asian–Australian judges, you know? Where are the Asian–Australian like, you know, the high court judges or anyone else in a senior position of power, the ones who are running the law firms. You get to positions of power, and it's still basically a monoculture in this country.
ASTRID: I have to skip forward because, I want to talk about the Stella Count and the VIDA Count. The Stella Count, came out about two weeks ago in Australia. It's run by the Stellar Prize, and it counts the book reviews and bylines in the major Australian publications by gender of the person who wrote the review, and the gender of the book they reviewed. It's not great, and last week the VIDA Count came out, which is an international not-for-profit at looks at women's representation in the major literary journals around the world. So things like The London Book Review, The New York Times Review, and that's even worse. I have one stat for you. 8 out of the 15 major publications did not even make 40% female representation, and then women of colour, people with disabilities, even less represented. I point this out because it's not just writers and stories. It's also the power of the critics and those reviewing the art that we have in this country that affects representation.
BEN: Isn't that just meritocracy though, Astrid? Like it always, you always get this question back like, well if those are the people who are calling the shots and are running the game, well, they're obviously there because of merit. And it's such a seductive argument, because as soon as you hear though, you're like, yeah, that's right. Isn't that right that people get to positions of power, and it's like no! Do you know how many mediocre people there are in positions of power? Look at the Australian government right now, you really think they got their own positions of merit? Look how many people share the same last name in our major newspapers. Like, they all come from the same family. You know, like, is that merit? The reason why we have these conversations like, why aren't people represented here, here and here, is not just, we're not just inserting it because we want a cosmetic, you know, bang-bang-bang-bang-bang tick a box. We're doing it to challenge nepotism. Nepotism is the problem, and we seem to have forgotten that. Nepotism between men, nepotism between white people, nepotism from people who come from the same bloodline, you know? We seem to have forgotten that that is such a big problem. And this is the manifestation of nepotism that we don't have women, that we don't have people of colour, that we don't have people with disabilities in jobs that they should have.
ASTRID: I could not agree with you more.
BEN: Sorry, that was my stump speech.
ASTRID: No, no, I like you stump speech. This brings me to Lionel Shriver, and her recent comments-
BEN: We're good mates, me and Lionel.
ASTRID: Clearly! So, the American writer, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, who recently made some very controversial statements about Penguin Random House's disability and diversity policy. I'm going to read you a little quote. Lionel wrote, ‘From now until 2025, literary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap education boxes.’ Your thoughts, Ben.
BEN: Okay. So first of all, I have to say, I actually like a lot of Lionel Shriver's writing. I especially like her as an essayist, and I think she's really convincing, and a really talented lucid voice, and I admire her for her writing. But I think what she's saying is kind of bullshit. I'm gonna kind of wind things back a little, because I'm a Brisbane boy originally and Lionel Shriver first became controversial because of my home city. At the Brisbane Writers Festival, she gave that kind of notorious speech, where she was talking about the bullshit of cultural appropriation. And then at the end said we should be able to write from anyone's perspective, and put a sombrero on at the end of the speech to make her point. How festive. And that speech rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and it definitely made me see Lionel Shriver differently, because the context of that speech wasn't what she was claiming was censorship. She was saying that these PC brigade people are saying that I shouldn't be able to write from a black perspective, or writers like Chris Cleave shouldn't be able to write from a black perspective or whatever. That actually stems from some criticism of one of her novels that featured a black character, and she caught some flak from critics saying that that character was two-dimensional. So, just want to put it out there that a lot of this was triggered off by people suggesting that her writing was crap. That's the first thing. The second thing is that, she is challenging this whole notion that to tick a box, which Penguin Random House in the UK at least, is starting to do. They're trying to make sure that what they uncover in publishing matches the general population. They're not doing that. Like, they're a business, fundamentally. I don't think like, Penguin Random House wants to sell books, and in order to sell books, and in order to make sure that new authors are uncovered, they have acknowledged and recognized that they're missing out on a lot of voices, and if they don't change processes about how they uncover manuscripts, they're going to miss out, and readers are going to miss out. I don't think that's a particularly controversial thing to say. I mean Lionel Shriver in that same piece also says, you can be sure that nowadays, if you are, you know, from an Afro-Caribbean background and you're gay, transgender, and with a disability, and you ride around on a mobility scooter, like this is basically, she basically did those bullet points, you will be published. And my first thought is, where is that book, because I totally want to read it, and my second thought is like, that's such a disingenuous argument because I just don't see...I actually don't see those books being published. Where are those books? Like, it's such a straw-man argument, and if she's saying hypothetically that that book will come out, I'm like, I want to buy it.
ASTRID: Completely. She's making the argument that quality will suffer which, I don't think holds up at all.
BEN: No, I mean like how, many gatekeepers... do you know how hard it is to be published by Penguin Random House? You know how hard it is to be published period? Publishers aren't claiming a stake just for PC purposes. They are trying to find stories that they know will sell, and they know that some stories aren't being unearthed.
ASTRID: For the record, we should say that Lionel Shriver has written several of the articles after that, winding herself back a little bit, but not quite.
ASTRID: It's still a bit controversial.
BEN: We'll all go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole tonight, won't we?
ASTRID: I want to move on to TV and movies for a minute. Obviously, you've written The Family Law, the third season, which is coming out shortly.
BEN: Yeah, so it's in the bag. It's our third and final season. It's our weirdest and most... but it's probably the season of which I'm most proud. It's thrillingly batshit. It will really rub Lyle Shelton and Cory Bernardi the wrong way and-
BEN: I'm so, so keen, I still need to have this conversation with SBS, but I want to send them preview copies.
ASTRID: I think you should. So the first season came out in 2016?
BEN: Yeah that's right.
ASTRID: ... if I'm correct.
ASTRID: You know, one of the first predominantly... shows with predominantly Asian–Australian cast, I don't know, has it opened the floodgates? Has anything changed on Australian TV?
BEN: A little. I mean it's, and it's not because of our show necessarily, but in terms of Asian–Australian representation, you know, like Asian–Australians account for like I said, 10% of the population in this country, so we kind of like, made a corrective and had 90% of the cast Asian–Australian. I know that seems aggressive, but it's just something that we wanted to do. It didn't just happen because. The show only happened because our executive producer Tony Ayres, who's also responsible for shows like Glitch, he created Nowhere Boys, that if you have teenagers, they've probably watched, that... Seven Types of Ambiguity is also his. He kind of plucked the show, because it resonated with him, because he also happens to be Asian–Australian and gay, and he kind of got very quickly along with our other co-executive producer Debbie Lee, who's also Asian–Australian. They kind of understood that it was time for a show like this, that featured a predominantly ethnic cast, but wasn't about ethnicity. So, the show isn't, I don't think, about Asian–Australian identity so much.
ASTRID: It's about family.
BEN: It's about family, and it's a comedy about divorce, which is the funniest thing in the world. They just happen to be Asian–Australian. But at the same time, we're not divorcing themselves from their cultural heritage, just like the show Friends didn't divorce, you know, those characters from their whiteness.
ASTRID: So true. So, what are some TV shows that have got representation right? And what are some that are truly stuffed it up?
BEN: Okay, so, I'm just going to go international for a sec.
ASTRID: Please do.
BEN: One show that I think has kind of gotten it right is RuPaul's Drag Race. I'm really obsessed with it at the moment. I only got into it like a few months ago, because I'm a bad gay, and it's completely taken over my life, consumed me. I've stopped reading because of a... well, my boyfriend and I are almost up to date. We are shells now. We are shells of human beings, but this is ostensibly, you know, a drag queen reality TV competition. But in terms of representation, obviously of the gay community, and also partly the trans community, but in terms of seeing people from different ethnicities represented, class, privileged background, all of that, is just kind of thrilling to watch. I'm not sure that narrative... like there's great narrative dramas all around the world, like, you watch something like Orange is the New Black, for instance. I know that that's been several years in the making, but when... I still remember watching the first season of that, and being blown away by the diversity and inclusiveness of that show. I think Australian narrative comedy and drama still has some way to go, and I think reality TV has actually eclipsed it in terms of representing what Australia looks like. Not Love Island, and not the renovation shows, which are pretty Anglo still, but definitely cooking shows, singing shows, that sort of stuff, because those are pretty democratic kind of skills. And you know, it's kind of amazing that, you know, one of our biggest cultural exports around the world is actually MasterChef Australia. It's like, one of the biggest shows in India. Like, if you go to India, and you don't know much about cricket, so you can't connect with Indian people with that, talk about MasterChef Australia, they know it inside out, and I kind of love that that showcases, you know, what we look like and what we taste like. But I think Australian narrative TV, I think of something like, you know, I think kids TV is doing really well. You know, something like Playschool, look at the host at the moment. It's like one of the most inclusive casts. You look at something like Nowhere Boys. I think dramas like Seven Types of Ambiguity are doing good. I worked on a show called Sisters for Channel 10, and Sisters was like, from the makers of Offspring, and one of their main storylines was a queer storyline that involved a queer woman of colour. And for that to be showcased front and centre as a part of a commercial network, there wasn't a big song and dance about it. It just the plot, and I loved that.
ASTRID: So tell me about tokenism, and how do writers avoid it.
BEN: Okay. So, I've kind of got mixed feelings even about the term tokenism, because I feel like when it's used in this country, whether it's in workplaces, or whether it's, you know, casting studios for film and television, it's what people use as a clapback when you say this needs to be more diverse. I mean, ‘Well, isn't that just tokenism?’ And it's like, what are you more worried about, tokenism or the fact that your entire cast is white? Or what do you more concerned about, like, the fact that you're going to have a different looking cover model, or the fact that every other cover model on your magazines have been white, and I bring up magazines and television, because those are the two fields that have actually had those conversations. And I just don't think that Australia has even gone through a phase of tokenism, for us to be even anxious about it. The way that you avoid it is easy. You hire two. And then it's not tokenism anymore. Because then they're not the only one in the room, right? So that's pretty simple. The way that you avoid it in scripting narrative staff, or when you're telling any kind of story really, is to make sure that that character is as three-dimensional and complex as anyone else in that story, and if they're not, then it is tokenism.
ASTRID: So what do you think of sensitivity readings?
BEN: Is that a practice?
ASTRID: It is a practice. So, for example-
BEN: Sounds like a good practice, I mean what... so, so sensitivity readings means that someone will scan it, and...
ASTRID: Yeah, someone with that lived experience will read the book and make comments about if that experience is true to real life.
BEN: I want that job. But it also suggests to me that you don't have enough people from diverse backgrounds actually working with you in the first place.
BEN: Or that you don't feel as the author of that work, confident enough, and that might suggest that something's wrong. I appreciate that that's kind of like, one last guard against something going horrific wrong, but why wasn't that incorporated into... and I know that books are different from films and TV screens, but TV and film is inherently collaborative, and even writing a book is collaborative with your editor. So if you're writing a novel, or if you're writing a nonfiction book, and it requires a sensitivity reading, I mean, I would commend the fact that you're going that extra mile, but I would hope that before the manuscript's even finished, that you feel confident that you've interviewed the people that you want to interview from that background that isn't yours, that you've had consultation with leaders and elders of that community, or to understand that there is no singular experience of that community that you're talking about. There is not, you know, an Asian–Australian experience. There is no universal white experience either. So, why should there be any universal experience just because that character comes from a certain community?
ASTRID: That's a good answer. Thank you, Ben. Moving back to TV and I guess movies in Australia, are you aware of any scripts that have been rejected by the powers that be, because they're too diverse or too niche?
BEN: So what I've noticed in film and television, and I have to say like, I'm still... like I've been writing scripts for like, maybe the last five years now, but I still feel like I'm a bit new to it, but my observations in the industry and my experiences are, that there actually is a willingness for producers to want to include diversity or show representation in what they're creating, but it often stumbles at some sort of practical hurdle. For instance, I was a part of the development team of a TV show, where it was about like, six young people going about their merry little adventures, and it's like, well, let's make sure that there is not entirely a white cast, because in the 21st century in Australia, like, that's probably going to be rare in an urban environment for that gang of kids to be exclusively white. They agreed, so we made sure that one of the... at least one of the characters was not Anglo, but then when it came to casting they just freaked out. They just couldn't find that person, and that character snapped back to white. It was a revert to white. That happens over and over and over again, and that's often because they haven't baked into the production that it is harder to find non-Anglo actors in this country, because we have grown up in a country where you don't see them onscreen, so why would that be a viable career option? And then you go for those roles, you don't get them, you back away from the industry, then people are looking for you, you don't exist anymore, it's like this self-perpetuating cycle. And so, why The Family Law was different is, our producers, and our casting directors, and our directors, understood this challenge right from the outset like, okay, just to give you an example. My mom, when the show was greenlit, I was like, ‘Okay, so Mom, in an ideal world, who would play you?’ And she was like thinking and think like, ‘Okay, this is hard but I've got it now. Judith Lucy.’ I'm like, ‘Mum, Judith Lucy's white.’ And she's like, ‘Yeah, but you know, she could do a bit of ahhh...’ Which is like, funny, also messed up, but also shows you the extent to which like, we don't know that many... like as Australian viewers of television, we don't actually know that many non-Anglo actors that we can just reel off, and especially Asian–Australian ones. And so the casting directors actually took three times the amount of time it usually would take to cast a show, to cast our show. They went to six times as many territories that they'd usually cast, and they went to like, schools, community centres, halls, looking for actors who might not even have acting experience. And I know for instance, on the ABC show that's coming up called The Heights, it's going to be the first ABC serial, like a soap, that's been done in like, over 10 years. A few of my friends are working on it. But, you know, they need to cast like, Vietnamese Australian actors for... to cast one particular family, and they had to cast creatively. And as a result, some of the actors working on that show don't have any professional experiences, but are apparently, some of the best performers on cast. And you have to go that extra mile, otherwise, you're not going to get it. All your intentions can be there, but unless you prepare, you're not going to get the outcome you want.
ASTRID: So what does a diverse landscape in Australia look like in terms of our TV, our movie and our literature?
BEN: What does it look like?
BEN: It kind of looks like Swanston Street.
BEN: It kind of looks like Central Station tunnel in Sydney, or Queen Street Mall.
ASTRID: You're taking the piss out of me, Ben. So what are the other barriers? Are there-
BEN: What other barriers are there?
ASTRID: You just talked about casting and the fact that it's, you know, not a viable career option because people haven't grown up seeing themselves represented.
ASTRID: What are the other things that are stopping this happening?
BEN: A blindness to what is overrepresented, because I think when we call that out, people feel like it's an attack on those people who are overrepresented, and I don't think like, you know, when you critique patriarchy, that's not a critique on every individual man, you know. It's critiquing a power system. Or when you say whiteness is overrepresented in the stories we're telling, that's not, you know, like, I'm dating a white guy. I love white people. It's not a critique on white people, it's critique on a power structure and the kind of strange unfair dominance of a certain group. I think we need to kind of like, sort of shrug off the anxiety about that sort of stuff, and shrug off our offense at actually naming the problem, which is overrepresentation of certain groups.
And then I think we do just need to go that extra mile. So for instance, you know, the only reason I have books out is because there was an anthology called Growing Up Asian in Australia by Black Inc., that was edited by Alice Pung. And at that stage, I was writing a lot for Frankie magazine, and I just happily assumed that I would be a freelance writer for magazines for the rest of my career, but on a whim, I submitted two essays to that, they published both of them, and I got a book deal out of it. But the fact that that anthology existed in the first place, was both Alice and the publishers recognising there was an absence of Asian–Australian voices in Australian letters, and they wanted to rectify that. So there needed to be a circuit breaker, and circuit breakers need to be introduced.
ASTRID: In an age of social media where we can all curate our own news and entertainment, sometimes I question how successful representation can be if we can all just tune out and not follow stuff that's different to us, or stuff that we don't like.
ASTRID: So as a public figure, and as a storyteller, how do you get over that?
BEN: Okay. So, when you say that about like, not tuning into people who are too different, that I mean, immediately that reminds me of my social media experience, right? Especially on Twitter, it's a forum for strangers. And that can be the most beautiful thing in the world, and it can be the ugliest, and I really love engaging with people who are different to me, and often think differently to me. The only reason I want to block them out is if we're not entering into a conversation in good faith. So, if your intention is to simply humiliate, or if your intention is to not have a conversation, but to simply attack and abuse, like that's not a conversation. Like, that's not a dialogue, so I'm actually just going to mute you. Like, I block people who are racist and bigoted, but I mute people who I just think are annoying. But if you present something like, a valid argument, or something that instils doubt in my mind, like, I do actually... I'm so interested in that and... I know that sounds pat, but that's kind of my background when I've worked as... when I've worked in journalistic modes. That's kind of all I'm doing. I only really want to engage with people whose experiences aren't anything like mine.
ASTRID: See, I think that reflects on you and your open-mindedness. I'm assuming-
BEN: I'm very open minded, everyone.
ASTRID: We have no doubt! I'm assuming that everybody who turned up tonight likes you, and-
BEN: Except one of you.
ASTRID: There's always one, hey? But, I mean, we're talking about representation and diversity, but if people already know what you stand for, is this not a room full of the converted? So as much as I hate-
BEN: I hope so. This is church right now, right? I'm your leader.
ASTRID: As much as I hate to use this phrase, you know, how do you mainstream diversity if people who already follow you turn up to your events?
BEN: Yeah. So, this is actually... it's funny because earlier today, I was in Sydney for a conference that was marking the 40th anniversary of Mardi Gras, which was technically Sunday. And, it's a conversation that storytellers within the queer community are having, because we were talking about writing on the margins, because we are a marginalised people, experimental fiction, how we use our voice out there, and, I mean, as much as I, you know, I'm right here, right now in State Library of Victoria, this is a safe space. I think that first of all, spaces where you do agree are important, to feel like you are a part of a community that has a shared mutual understanding. That is really important for self-care. It's important to share values, and to know that people in the room also share values. It's like, I recently spoke to Nazeem Hussain, the comedian, and he's like, ‘You know, it's like when you go to a protest, sometimes you do it to know that you're not insane, you know? As much as you want to affect change, you want to be marching the streets so you don't feel more alone.’ So that's one thing. So I think spaces like this are really important and valid. The other thing that I try to do, at least personally, I don't think that this is like a universal rule, is like, I really actually, I'm trying to be as mainstream as possible in a way. Like, I grew up in the suburbs of coastal Queensland, you know? Like, I didn't even watch the ABC. We were just watching like, a whole lot of Gladiators and Man O Man, and sex movies on SBS, like... so for me like, my cultural diet growing up was, kind of not so high and lofty, but we didn't actually have a differentiation between high and low culture anyway. And so as a result, I think I'm kind of culturally omnivorous, and a little bit... I don't know, like I still am not really convinced about arguments about what's valid culture and what's not. And so, you know, that's why... I know that SBS is kind of a public broadcaster, but at the same time, it has commercial sensibilities, because it also has commercials. It's why I want to write for shows on Channel 10, and that's why I have. It's why I really want to make sure that I'm writing for Fairfax, but at the same time, I also recognise that I cut my teeth and continue to support, you know, independent literary journals, and, you know, things that are really grassroots, You know, I was the editor of student media (38.53). So those things are really important too. And I think you know, it's completely okay to straddle all of those things.
ASTRID: Ben, I think it's time for your big reveal.
BEN: Okay. So, you need to close your eyes. I'm going to get naked. No, I'm just kidding. So, the big reveal is the next book project, right?
ASTRID: It is, yes.
BEN: Okay. So, it's a book of gay erotica. No, I'm just kidding. I'm writing that... I'm writing that secretly. Like I said before, one of the things that really kind of, well essentially changed my life, was growing up Asian in Australia and getting those essays published.
ASTRID: And that came out in 2008?
BEN: Yeah, that's right. So, ten years ago. Edited by Alice Pung, and it's in so many schools now, and has really changed how, you know, teenagers read about themselves and their peers in Australia, and since then, Black Inc., who are my publisher, and... publish you know, all sorts of great stuff, they have done other anthologies. So Growing Up Aboriginal Australia, edited by Anita Heiss, which is, you know, incredible contributions from people like Miranda Tapsell and [foreign language 00:40:06], the next anthology that will come out after that, is Growing Up African Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, and I'll be editing the anthology that comes after that. I've come full circle, and it's going to be Growing Up Queer in Australia. So, we're going to be hearing from people across generations. I'm really excited about this. Many, many prominent Australians, and a lot of first-time writers I hope, we're going to be opening up submissions today!
ASTRID: In three minutes.
BEN: Get packing. I expect you to just like, burn out that door, and get online, and start contributing and submitting. But I'm really looking forward to this, because you know, what I... I would have killed to have read an anthology like Growing Up Asian in Australia, when I was growing up, but I would have equally killed to have read something like Growing Up Queer in Australia. I think those kinds, you know, with marriage equality having passed last year, I think for a lot of people, but I think especially for heterosexual and cisgender people, there's this kind of assumption that ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, we've reached Boss Level of queer rights in this country, and there's nothing left to do but, you know, when you actually engage with young queer people, there's still so much isolation and non-recognition in the stories they read.
ASTRID: But goes back to the opening sentence of your Quarterly essay, a 13-year-old boy who killed himself after being bullied in school for being gay.
BEN: Yeah. Well, I mean, there are so many things that led to that, but I think, like I said at the start, this is all about a sense of safety, and within safety, is about recognition, belonging to a community, and seeing yourself reflected.
ASTRID: So, do you know when this will be published? 2019?
BEN: Yes. Is that right? I should know that.
ASTRID: I'm asking you.
BEN: Yes, 2019. I think. We've just only started the process. But Growing Up African in Australia, needs to come out next.
ASTRID: It does.
BEN: And then Growing Up Queer in Australia will come out after.
ASTRID: So Ben, we'll be taking questions. If you have any questions, roving mics are coming around, so please put your hand up. While we're waiting for that, Ben, I'm really excited to read your next book, and I would like to put on the record that I hope someone at some point writes Growing Up with a Disability in Australia.
BEN: Absolutely. It's a huge part of our community, and those stories aren't told enough.
ASTRID: Not at all. Now you've recently become an ambassador for the National Library of Australia (NLA).
BEN: I know, much to Miranda Divine's...
ASTRID: Really? What does she say?
BEN: ... sorrow and hate. No, she's just written some op-ed saying that it's deeply, deeply, inappropriate that I would be an ambassador for such an august organisation. But the funny thing is, all librarians are like, massive perverts, and I say that in a safe space, but it's really funny because like, when I was doing the whole tour of the... like, you kind of forget like, there's this whole idea that librarians are like, you know, the very dainty creatures who are... and yes for sure, but they're also the people who are like, the rebels, you know. They are the ones who fight against books being banned. They're the ones who have like, as I've discovered... Yes! Librarians!
ASTRID: That's worth a clap.
BEN: They're the ones who have discovered at the NLA, have like, archived reams of pornography. Like, I was not, I was not kidding about that when I said they were perverts, but also like, massive archives about LGBTIQ history that I didn't know was housed at the National Library. It's really, it's such a great and precious institution.
ASTRID: So who else is an ambassador? And what do you get to do? And what's your goal?
BEN: We have a sceptre and crown. It's like the finale of RuPaul's Drag Race. No, we basically talk about the library as much as we can. Like, tell people what's available, both in person and digitally, you know, if you can't get to Canberra, the library, this library, the State Library, but also the National Library, and your local library, like there's so much that's still online that's available to you in terms of resources. There's me, there's Kaz Cooke, there's Anita Heiss, there's Peter Fitzsimons, there's Garth Nix. We're a pretty mixed bunch from very, very different writing modes, but we're all mates. And we're just like spreading the good word. Like I'm not a very evangelical person, but what it comes to libraries, I am. Did you know? Okay, fun fact. Did you know there are more libraries in Australia than there are McDonald’s? That's been a-
ASTRID: That is quite affirming.
BEN: That's a verified fact. Take that home. Tell people.
ASTRID: We've been talking about consequence tonight, and you don't pull any punches in your writing.
ASTRID: What have been the consequences for you being so open? And please don't say there have been none, because that must be like-
BEN: No, no, no, no, I think if you're any person with a voice in this country, whatever your politics are, you'll be abused and attacked. If you have some sort of public platform, but that's amplified if you're a woman, and that's amplified if you come from an ethnic background in this country, unfortunately. So I kind of acknowledge that, you know, I don't get the kind of abuse that women get online, but I do get homophobic and racist abuse. But that's not a problem because I'm dead inside anyway, so it doesn't affect me. What else? If you kind of stake your claim, and kind of say this is important, and this is what I believe in, and it's antithetical to News Limited, my former employer, they'll go after you. So, there are kind of consequences, but you know, like after writing the Quarterly Essay, some of you might know this already, but after writing the Quarterly Essay, on the day that it came out, the Australian wages campaigned against me, for a tweet that I wrote – which I still stand by because it's pretty funny – but I did say that, you know, there was something that was hideous that had been said in the Senate, and I think it was Eric Abetz talking about gay people who were married at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which has happened, of course.
And I did tweet that, you know, some days I do wonder whether I'd just hate-fuck every anti-gay politician in Parliament, if it meant they got the homophobia out of their system, and what I meant by that was, you know, I was playing on that whole... Well, it's actually not just assumed, it's actually been shown that the most publicly homophobic politicians in the world do tend to be closeted homosexuals. But of course the... so like, if you want to get it out of your system, here's a receptacle for me, that that's the voice of Andrew Hastie out there, out to get me. So, you know, I was offering my body up for public service essentially, and then The Australian came after me saying that Benjamin Law wants to hate-fuck our politicians, and is a rape advocate, and that happened for the next 10 days.
ASTRID: That took a while-
BEN: So it was the same campaign. But in the end, I didn't mind it so much, because it drove sales of the Quarterly Essay, which was great.
ASTRID: Any publicity is good publicity.
BEN: Yeah. It actually meant that some people who had read that article and came to me in good faith, in the conversation saying, ‘Why did you write that’, and then I explained myself also then read the Quarterly Essay, and it kind of... I don't know, like, the worst thing that could have happened was if they'd engaged with the essay, and pulled it apart. And they didn't, and maybe they couldn't, and instead, went for nasty words on a social media account. So I don't kind of really mind what happened, because the outcome was okay.
ASTRID: So tweets aside, although that was quite an impressive tweet, have you ever found yourself censoring yourself before publication in a longer work?
BEN: You know, like for essays or for books or anything like that...
ASTRID: Yeah, kind of like kind of making that choice not to go somewhere.
BEN: No. It's funny, you know, because I tend to take it a little bit too far, and then like editors and producers will reign me back instead. Like in the first season of The Family Law, there was a really great joke that involved a microsecond of seeing dried period blood, and all the writers in the room, because it's predominantly female writers, they were like, ‘That is genius! That's the best thing that we've ever written!’ But it turns out that you can't show dried period blood on television.
ASTRID: Really? There's a rule?
BEN: We knew that the Americans would – because it's an American parent company – we knew the Americans would have problems, but it's also hard to get dried period blood on Australian television. You can see someone's head probably being lopped off, but to show the results of what happens for once a month for a lot of people in the community, that's out of bounds! So, it's often us writers seeing how far we can push it, and then people with more sense probably pulling us back. Or less sense. Oh, there are questions. Yeah.
Audience question: Thank you. It makes me nervous. I'm just curious when we talk about all of this white supremacy and that diversity within Australia, have we been able to see a first world country more specific... I think just in more of that publication, take the forefront as a good example, or Australia, are they... is Australia at the forefront of this diversity and bringing multiculturalism to the-
Benjamin: Okay, so I can talk about that with the screen industry in particular. So, there are countries like with, you know, comparative countries like Canada, New Zealand, the US, and the UK, arguably better at presenting diversity than Australia is by some measures. Where Australia has actually done really well in terms of film and television is indigenous representation. So 3% of the population of the Australian population is indigenous. So 1 in 33 Australians have indigenous background. There was a period in the 1990s where there was not a single indigenous person on television. At all. In any scripted drama or comedy. And instead of the TV industry, and instead of Screen Australia, and state funding bodies saying, ‘Well, it's a meritocracy, and if we just let it happen it will rise to the top,’ there was a lot of money invested over decades to make sure that indigenous talent was fostered, both behind the camera and in front of the camera. That was extended to like, casting agents, producers, directors, like, there were, you know, even when it comes to training, you know, they'll be kind of scholarships, or initiatives for indigenous applicants to get in. And as a result, we at last count, have reached parity between the... our population and how many indigenous faces we see onscreen. And you know, the fact that Miranda Tapsell won two Logies that year. It's the first time that happened, but that was kind of, you know, a point where we hit the goal. But that didn't happen naturally, you know. It happened because we invested time and money. And so, that model or that lesson needs to be taken in different places.
ASTRID: Talking about representation on TV, you have a new TV show, and your co-host…
BEN: Oh yeah, I do. Yeah.
ASTRID: Rae Johnston is indigenous.
BEN: I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Yeah, so That Startup Show, which is online streaming show that will premiere on Gizmodo to begin with, and then we'll move to Amazon Prime, and Virgin Australia, it's a talk show about tech, technology, and startups. And it's co-hosted by me and Rae Johnston who's the editor of Gizmodo, and Wiradjuri Woman. So, you know, it's not that hard to you know, cast... like we were waiting around, so, you know, if That Startup Show can do it, you can also do it in other fields. I mean, like for instance, I know there was a show that was co-hosted on the ABC, with Gretel Killeen and Matt Okine and I know that talking to some of the people behind the casting of that, that didn't happen by accident. They actively wanted male-female co-hosts. They wanted the woman to be older because it's never seen on television, and for one of them to be non-Anglo. And no one would say that, you know, Gretel Killeen and Matt Okine, like two of the most champagne personalities on Australian television, like, no one would argue against their talent, or would say that that's meritocracy, but you do need to put infrastructure in place, otherwise stuff like that won't happen.
ASTRID: Completely. Do we have any further? Yes, we have a question here. Oh, and a question down the front?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Yeah, when I was growing up gay in the country back in South Australia, there weren't really any role models or anything on television, in that, but one person that does stick out in my memory was Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served?
BEN: Oh, yes, ‘I'm free!’
AUDIENCE QUESTION: That's it, yeah, yeah, and I was terrified, I thought, ‘My God, that's what it means to be gay.’ So I was just wondering for you Ben, when you were a kid, was there anyone on TV, film, or anyone that either messed with your head or was the role model.
BEN: Yeah, so I watched Mr. Humphries, and I just thought like, he's like, I just didn't understand that camp was also... I was too young to... it completely flew over my head. But then, you know, Julian Clary was a really big figure. He was like the British... like he often would did drag as well. And then when the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras started being broadcast, that was both the fascinating and terrifying, because like, I was the 90s kid who was like into indie rock. Yeah. And it's kind of like, ‘Are these my people, or is this community? Is this my community?’ And of course it is now, like I love going to Mardi Gras now, and how diverse and inclusive it is. It's not just one type of gay or queer person who's accepted into that fold. But then back then, it was the combination that that was the only image that existed, and the fact that that image was deemed to be disgusting. So it wasn't the Mardi Gras' fault. It wasn't the people on parades fault. It's just that no one can represent the whole diversity of an entire community. And no event should have to, no news special should have to, it's why you know, when we talk about diversity, it's not like one show or anything that will fix this. It's about a lot of different representations being available, so that we can recognise ourselves. It wasn't till later on that I think the thing that really kind of like, opened me up was Dawson's Creek. You know, remember when Jack says that – it's pretty shit poem – but Jack says that poem, and it's like, such an intense moment. And I know that for me, that was like kind of a real emotional galvanising moment as well. Poor Jack. He was pretty hot. And that was also helpful. But thank you for your question, I'm not sure if that answered it.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: That almost stole my own question, which is actually about geographical distribution, and how that affects diversity in writing. I also grew up in a country town in the 60s and 70s, and I saw neither any gay people, nor any Asian people. Even in Melbourne CBD where I work every day, there's quite a difference between the two ends of Swanson Street.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: So, I'm wondering in terms of, how do graphically placed is it when we do see diversity in writing, certainly racial in Australian media and Australian stories. Are the diverse ones always in the CBD basically? Are they always in the inner urban, funky suburbs where that, you know, where we have the Greens candidates and things, so.
BEN: Yeah. I mean, I guess depending on the platform but I guess urban stories are more conducive to having that kind of matter of fact diversity, because it's a lot of our workplaces. It's the streets we walk down, all that sort of stuff. But you know, when you get to country regional, and even in my case, parts of the suburbs, it becomes very monocultural, very quickly. And so, I think there is a case to be made for specificity of place, and reflecting what that place actually is. But I also think that story can be told alongside others as well. You know, this is what I kind of keep coming back to, that, no story needs to... should have to shoulder the burden of representing everything and everyone. But if we have more diversity across the stories, we don't have to be as anxious about this as much.
ASTRID: I believe we're almost out of time, Ben.
BEN: There's a question there, or not?
ASTRID: Oh yes, one more question. Sorry. I couldn't see you.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Thank you. Ben, growing up queer and Asian, was it harder than... well, I'm assuming you probably... do you think it was harder than growing up just queer, or just Asian? And do we need to have more places or resources for queer people in ethnic communities, because there's still a huge stigma around it, and we saw that in the lowest voltage suburb in Sydney.
BEN: Yeah. Yeah. So one, is it tougher or is it different? Sure. Like, my queer experience is something that my other... like, my other family members can... my experience of being Asian–Australian obviously resonates for them, that experience of racism or being an outsider for sure. They know what it feels like to be the only Asian–Australian person in a workplace or room. So, we have that understanding, but they don't have that intimate experience of being queer. And similarly, you know, my sister has a physical condition that marks her out as visually different to other people, so I don't have access to that experience, but we understand each other's stories, and we understand that it's different, and in some very specific ways, tougher. So there's that, and yeah, absolutely, I think this conversation about opening up ethnic communities and being inclusive of queerness is a really, really important one, and you know, I really feel for like, for instance, a lot of my Muslim–Australian friends, because when this conversation kind of comes up for them, they want to be able to say, ‘Yeah, like, I support queer rights as well, but that's also a conversation we're happening within my community, but at the same time it's a difficult one to have when everyone's lumping us up in one category, saying your entire religion is homophobic.’ Like that's not particularly helpful. And again, you know, why are we making these generalisations across a very complex community? You know, generalisations like that don't particularly help get us into the nuances and the specifics of the conversations we need to have.
ASTRID: Everybody, let's give a round of applause to Ben!
BEN: Thank you very much! Astrid Edwards, everyone!