If you’re the kind of person who uses words like: epicurean, acidulous or imprimatur; you’re probably pretty excited for the Melbourne Writers Festival. If you’re not, it’s probably good you don’t talk like that—but you should still get excited about...
If you’re the kind of person who uses words like: epicurean, acidulous or imprimatur; you’re probably pretty excited for the Melbourne Writers Festival. If you’re not, it’s probably good you don’t talk like that—but you should still get excited about Benjamin Law.
Ben is a writer who talks about things like race, politics, and family without making you want to yawn audibly. This year he’s hosting the Queer Literary Salon with Jess McGuire, Michelle Dicinoski, Dennis Altman, and Lisa-Skye Goodes as his guests. As the name probably gives away, it’s about queer literature.
In the lead up to it we asked him for a reading list as a primer to the big event. In short: In a perfect world where everyone was a worldly-head-nodding- type, what would he like the audience to have already read?
Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (Dennis Altman)
VICE: This book was ground breaking when it was published in the 70s, but was out of print for a long time, what about it remains relevant?
Ben: You're right: this book went out of print awhile back, but UQP recently re-issued it for its 20th anniversary, complete with a neon pink cover (appropriate, really). I actually met Dennis Altman way before I even realised who he was—which is to say, the godfather of the gay rights movement in Australia. This is probably typical of my generation and younger fags—we don't necessarily know our history. But reading Dennis's work now, it's not only a ground breaking manifesto, interrogation and historical document—it's a complete education, much like talking to the man himself.
Thirty years on, are there sections of this you feel have been made less relevant due to positive social change?
Oh sure. And that's for better and worse. In the intro to the reissue, Altman writes beautifully about his ambivalence towards the fight for same-sex marriage (ultimately though, he's not going to fight on the same side as Fred Nile and George Pell) and how some of his projections—like, the end of categories like homosexual and heterosexual—were a little off the mark. But that doesn't matter. An important part of the book is being a time capsule of ideas in that era.
The End of the Homosexual? (Dennis Altman)
Would reading this mean the listener will get more out of your talk?
Dennis is goddamn impressive on the stage. The man's a consummate intellectual and an utterly handsome brain. I've shared the stage with him before, and he doesn't need notes—the man speaks in perfectly formed sentences, that are both encyclopedic in accuracy, original in thought, and funny as all-fuck. Reading his books beforehand would be ideal. Let him impress you in bed (so to speak), the finish it off on the stage.
Sexy. Do you think we’ll ever get to the point where a person’s sexuality isn’t a focal point, say (debatably) the way race or gender is in Australia? Or is identifying your sexuality too important to who we are as individuals?
Oh god, anyone who thinks race and gender has disappeared as social issues aren't paying attention to the news. But identifying factors like race, sex and sexuality shouldn't be invisibilised—they're the things that make us unique. I just wished we framed more stories as issues that affect white, heterosexual men. We rarely think of them as racialised, gendered or having a unique sexuality, but of course they do too.
Ghost Wife (Michelle Dicinoski)
This is moving in a different direction, what does Ghost Wife bring to the discussion?
I've been a friend of Michelle's for years and was familiar with her poetry. When I heard she was writing a memoir about her same-sex marriage in Canada, I knew it'd be good. But what she brings to the discussion is far more unexpected: she weaves in hidden histories of same sex marriage from decades ago, how lesbians had guerilla underground weddings and how others obscured their gender so they could live together. Same-sex marriage—like any marriage—can seem a bit beige as an institution, but Michelle reminds us it can also be this deeply subversive punk act too.
Are same sex love stories intrinsically different to heterosexual love stories?
Well, the sex is definitely different.
Very true. This introduces marriage into things; why do you think the right to marry is so emotionally poignant in a society that is largely moving away from the tradition of marriage in general?
Marriage used to be a practical issue: all about property and rights. In the developed world, we do mostly marry for emotional issues now: companionship, romance and love. And of course we're moving away from marriage as an ideal—I personally don't have any interest to marry my boyfriend (Scott and I would rather be immolated in public than cut a cake in front of an audience)—but when people are purposefully excluded from legal privileges, that does rather suck balls.
Known Turf (Annie Zaidi)
This book stands apart from the rest, why is it important to you?
Annie and Chandrahas are Indian authors whose books aren't yet available in Australia. I met them both as part of Bookwallah, a sort of literary showcase where three Australian authors and three Indian writers travelled through India together in November 2012, by train, for thousands of kilometres doing talks and events about their work. It was massive fun, and I fell totally in love with those guys—and their work—pretty quickly. What I loved about Annie's collection of essays is that it reminded me of some of the greatest non-fiction that was being written in Australia too. She felt like a peer and, whether she's hanging out with bandits or writing about poverty, her writing is fearless and smart. It makes me want to be braver as a writer.
How do issues like foeticide, abuse and poverty relate to what you’re talking about?
Annie's a writer who looks at stories on the margins, focusing on issues that aren't pretty. There's an ugliness to the world sometimes that's important to acknowledge, and it's not always easy to be that writer who volunteers to write about them. That quality about Annie is something I dig.
Arzee the Dwarf (Chandrahas Choudhury)
Again, a less than obvious choice; how does this play into what you’re talking about?
Chandrahas is also going to at the Melbourne Writers' Festival with us too. He's a buddy—all charm and class and brains. He's also got a reputation as a total literary dreamboat back in India, but I never told you this. Arzee the Dwarf is his debut novel, and it's just cracking storytelling: dreamy, romantic and bustling with characters. People familiar with Indian literature might have assumptions of the kind of stories that come out of India, but Chandrahas is part of that new guard that's exciting to read on the page.
The Family Law (Benjamin Law)
Getting personal now, how has your family shaped you?
I'm one of five kids, to parents who migrated to Australia and went through a spectacularly messy divorce. There are probably very few ways in which my family didn't shape me.
You find a very sunny side of those ugly family problems; was it difficult to take a personal thing and bring this perspective to it?
Oh look, if I wrote this book as a teenager, it would've been all gloom and self-harm (it was the 1990s—I was listening to a lot of PJ Harvey). But what they say about comedy is probably true about life: time plus tragedy equals comedy. Give it enough time, and the horrors seem funny after a while. Plus, I always find bleak things the funniest. There's another saying that goes: Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.
Is it hard to bring so much of yourself into your work? Do you ever feel over exposed by it?
Nah. Everyone has different lines about what they're willing to share with the world. And I'm the world's most appalling over-sharer ever.
Gaysia (Benjamin Law)
You can be seen as a voice for the young gay asian community; but what was it like coming out in the Asian community?
To be honest, I've never really thought of it as coming out in the Asian community, just because so many of the people around me, growing up, were non-Asian. Coastal Queensland in the 1990s was a pretty white place.
Do you ever worry about being pigeonholed as a writer? That people will always associate you with race and sexuality issues, and colour your writing with the only two things they may know about you?
I don't worry too much about that, actually. If people know me as the "gay, Asian writer", I'm not going to dispute that. I mean, it's not exactly like I've gone out to manufacture that identity, if you know what I mean. I can't really help that I happen to be Asian and into cock. And there's a dangerous edge to the question too: I don't think too many straight white male writers are often asked whether they feel they're pigeonholed as straight white male writers.
Personally, though: I have to say I love reading about white people. They fascinate me.