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Sam van Zweden

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Welcome To Gaysia! In Conversation with Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is featuring on both sides of a slew of Melbourne Writers Festival events, both as a panelist and interviewer. His first book, The Family Law, is a hilarious memoir about his very forthright family. His latest book, Gaysia, explores questions Benjamin had about whether life would have been different if he’d grown up gay in Asia. The answer: almost definitely. Reaching this answer is a funny, sometimes shocking, always gripping journey around a handful of Asian countries, looking at how anything that isn’t mainstream heterosexuality is treated.

Benjamin Law. Picture from MWF website.

I enjoy Benjamin’s writing because it’s not just funny. I mean, it certainly is funny. Knee-slappingly so. But behind what he pokes fun at is always an almost childish curiosity, and he has the perspective to pull back from the particular humour to see the wider picture. He’s clever, and this makes reading his work a lot of fun.

In between his crazy MWF schedule, Benjamin was kind enough to answer some questions,  and tell us about how other people’s families are strange, how his and David Sedaris’ sex lives are similar, and a possible time frame on his next project.

SvZ- Hi Ben! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new book Gaysia, it’s a hilarious, fun and compelling read. Your first book, The Family Law, was immensely popular. That book was quite different to Gaysia. How has the experience of writing your latest book compared? And what made you decide to move away from writing about your family and into more immersive journalistic territory?
BL– It’s funny: in my day-to-day work life, I tend to write in two different modes. Sometimes I’ll write columns about personal experiences for magazines like frankie or Qweekend, and other times I’ll be writing longform non-fiction for magazines like The Monthly or Good WeekendThe Family Law was this demented, black comedy memoir about my family, so that was an extension of all that comedic column writing. Whereas Gaysia is gonzo-ish adventure journalism, looking at seven different LGBT/queer issues in seven different countries: Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and India.

SvZ- Your new book, Gaysia, looks at sexuality in Asia. Do you think Australians have misconceptions about sexuality in Asia? How much of our understanding is shaped by mainstream travel?
BL- I think everyone has preconceptions about countries they’ve never travelled to. When we think of Thailand for instance, we always make jokes about ladyboys. We might even travel to Thailand and spot a few. But will we talk to them and have a proper conversation about what their lives are like? Probably not.

SvZ- Your writing is highly personal – a lot of its humour comes from the fact that the things you share would be closely guarded secrets for most people. Bodily functions, sex, awkward things that come out of your mouth. In the Melbourne Writers Festival panel Friendly Fire, you mentioned that this intimate style often means that readers feel like they know you. How much of that is something you willingly signed up for in writing memoir, and how much is kind of creepy?
BL- Meh, my family’s always been pretty comfortable talking about bodily functions, and I’ve always been amused by how easily people are shocked when I bring that stuff up. It’s like, “Dude, if you’re healthy, you’ve done a poo roughly once a day for every day of your life. Surely it doesn’t shock you any more.” So of course, people think you’re revealing these huge secrets about your life, but the story you’re reading represents such a tiny fraction of my life. But if you feel like you know me really well, that’s fantastic, because that’s what all personal essayists or memoirists try to do: create a sense of intimacy. It’s cute: when people come up and tell me they’ve read The Family Law, we often talk heaps about how it reminds them of their own family. That’s what I’ve really dug, how the book makes people realise their own families aren’t that strange either.

SvZ- There seems to be almost nowhere you won’t go for a laugh in your writing. Is there anything you won’t write about?
BL- Oh sure, I won’t describe what I do in bed with my boyfriend. It’s one of David Sedaris’s rules too. I’m not sure anyone wants to be subjected to that.

SvZ- Congratulations, also, on having Gaysia included on the Get Reading “50 Books You Can’t Put Down” list. This list is in bookstores nation-wide, and caters for pretty much every reader on the planet. How does it feel to have your writing placed among that of very mainstream writers like Kathy Lette and Michael Robotham?
BL – I’m not going to lie. My publishers and I have somehow managed to convince people that a non-fiction book about LGBT issues in Asia is super-readable and not at all niche. Pretty stoked about that.

SvZ- Where to from here for Benjamin Law?
BL- Every time I finish a book, I promise myself not to dive into a new one for at least a year or so. And yet, here I am again, drafting out the foundations of another one … Give it a year or two, and you’ll hear all about it.

Coming up this weekend, you can see Benjamin Law at the Melbourne Writers Festival events ‘In Conversation: Germaine Greer’, The Stella Prize Trivia Night, and ‘Inside Asia‘. 

Opportunities a Plenty

Being involved with EWF more closely this year has opened my eyes to the amazing amount of opportunities they have available for writers, outside the festival itself. There’s a bunch of deadlines coming up, so I thought I’d just do a heads-up for anyone that might be interested in these opportunities. I’d encourage people to apply, because EWF’s a fanastically supportive atmosphere, and a wonderful starting point. Having this stuff on your resume is so helpful, and in terms of experience it’s priceless. And some of these are lucrative. Woot.

–> The Monash University Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing. Most prizes are almost impossible for an undergraduate emerging writer to win. They either require a publication history, or a whole book, or a completed manuscript, or… a bunch of stuff a lot of undergrads just don’t have. The Monash Prize has a large bundle of money to give to its winners, it’s for previously unpublished writers (see website for specs on this), and entries are reasonably short pieces of writing. Winners are also being published as an ebook by Penguin. Entries close April 23rd.

–> Words In Winter Writer’s Residency. A two-week writing residency at “a high-profile CBD location”. The theme is a future of writing, which is a pretty hot topic at the moment. If you’re concerned with digital story-telling, blogging, ebooks, self-publishing, or anything that’s wrapped up in the idea of the “future of writing”, then apply for this residency. There’s ten spots available, and EWF’s offering a publishing opportunity post-residency. Applications close April 20th.

–> Australian Poetry’s fantastic Cafe Poets program is launching their next round as part of the EWF in May. The program puts poets in cafes as writers-in-residence, giving the poet a space to work, free coffee, and an outlet: contact with the public. Applications close April 24th.

With all these opporunities available, you’ve got no excuse not to make stuff happen. Give it a go! Entries for all these close very soon, so get writing!

EVENTS! My goodness, EVENTS!

There’s just SO much coming up – my credit card’s getting a decent workout. As is the bit of my brain that controls excitement. I’d almost go as far as saying I’m perpetually excited by all the tickets I’ve got and things that are coming up.

Broadly speaking – two festivals. Melbourne Writers Festival and Overload Poetry Festival. MWF starts tomorrow, and Overload runs from the 9-17th of September.

Excited about the following:

– Tomorrow night’s keynote speech and opening of Melbourne Writers Festival by Jonathan Franzen, and general opening frivolities and Melbourne Town Hall.

Liner Notes, 3rd September – always a thoroughly entertaining night where spoken word artists “cover” (write on the theme of) a particular album. I’m not a huge INXS fan, but I am a fan of the people involved in the event – Emilie Zoey Baker, Omar Musa, Catherine Deveny, Ben Pobjie… The list goes on. And The Toff in Town is a great venue for these kind of writing events, so it promises to be a great night.

–  Melbourne Poetry Map launch – 15th September, at Loop Bar. Last year’s event was really fun, they had a huge range of poets on places that were familiar, and some that weren’t so familiar. This year ten new poets have been commissioned to do ten new poems about ten new places around our fair city – poets include Luka Lesson, Amy Bodossian, Joel McKerrow, Geoff Lemon, and other boys and girls who kick poetry’s butt on a regular basis.

– This is the big one. Shane Koyczan. If you know the fellow and hadn’t yet heard, I apologize if I just made you wet yourself. He’s doing a few gigs in Melbourne – one is some sort of science and rationalism conference at Jeff’s Shed on the 18th, tickets are about $300 and his set is only half an hour. I’m sticking with the two other gigs he’s doing, with Overload. He’ll be at the Tell It Like It Is slam on Friday 16th September, and also at the Overload closing night at the Fitzroy Town Hall on the 17th. Tickets for the closing night are available online, so get onto it, you don’t want to miss this man – the closing event also has a huge lineup of our own Melbourne poets.

If you don’t know Shane Koyczan, try this on for size. Sorry about the uncontrollable crying you’re about to do. Let’s remedy that with some uncontrollable laughing from this one. And just for good measure, this one is one of my favourites. If you watch these and feel as strongly as I do about the man’s brilliance, I’ll catch you at the gigs on the 16th and 17th. (We can talk about how we *completely* dig Degrassi!)

Writer/Reviewers

I don’t have time or energy to do this discussion the justice it deserves today, but it is a topic I’m deeply interested in, not just as something that’s relevant to me, but as something that has pretty serious implications for reading and reviewing culture as a whole:

Should people who are writers also be reviewers? (Particularly in a literary scene as small and as close as Melbourne’s, where everyone knows everyone) Is a reviewer’s expression censored somewhat for fear of making enemies amongst their peers?

Over on Literary Life today, Megan has posted about her stress about this issue. The post (sorry, Megan, but…) is a bit of a stress-rant, but the discussion which follows is well worth a look-in.

The post comes at a particularly relevant time for me, as I’ve just submitted my next review for Catalyst, and it’s reasonably negatve. It’s of a book from a debut novelist, which is a category of writer who usually get softer reviews so as not to crush any dreams. But it’s also from a French/American, and I was a bit disgusted with myself when I was writing the review, finding myself thinking, “This woman won’t meet me.” Because of this, I somehow gave myself permission to say just what I was thinking – while I made sure all criticisms were grounded and just, I didn’t go to the pains that I would for a Melbournian or Australian writer to say these things very softly. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t generally censor myself in writing reviews about people I know or have the capacity to know in the future, and if there is an existing relationship I’ll always flag it for total disclosure. However, the way I deliver negative criticism is something I’m much more aware of for these people, than remote authors who are (in the case of classics) dead, or else so remote to my sheltered existence (as with the upcoming review of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel) that they probably won’t read the review or ever meet me.

Is this sort of self-preservation bias acceptable? Avoidable? Should writers be reviewers at all?

The Emergence of the Writer’s Festival Program

It’s official! The date I’ve been hanging out for since last year is finally here. The Emerging Writers Festival program was launched last night, and you can now view the program on the EWF website.

I’ve already started ranking what I simply must go to, what I might go to if I come into some money, and what’s not helpful for me at all.

Things that have caught my eye:
“The First Word” ($20/$10) on the 21st of May… I went to this event last year and it got me so excited. It’s a panel event, this year’s line up includes some names I know well and others I’ve never heard… just a great way to kick of the festival.

“Express Media Skill Share” ($10ea./$30 for all four) on the 22nd of May… Express Media do some amazing work with young people, and Melbourne’s absolutely blessed to have a constant resource for our young and emerging writers. Express Media are running a bunch of workshops on the 22nd May, and have an awesome deal that you can go to all four workshops (so you’ll be there all day soaking up fantastic knowledge and skills) for $30. I’m only interested in two of these workshops, but they both look pretty great – one is run by Jo Case and it’s about writing good reviews, and the other is run by Davina Bell and Julia Carlomango and it’s about editing your work for publication… looks like some really worthwhile stuff happening with Express Media.

“Page Parlour” (FREE!) on the 23rd May is a big zine fair at the Fed Square atrium. It’s a really great place to meet people, as a lot of the stalls are manned by important people from those publications (editors etc), and also a good way to stock up on some publications that are a little harder to find.

From the 24th-28th of May, there’s something called TwitterFEST (FREE), where EWF are running interviews, discussions debates etc on Twitter, making it really democratic and interactive, everything’s just organised using #hashtags. …you don’t even have to leave the couch for this one! I’m most interested in the 28th of May at 2pm, when a slew of fantastic writers and important people will be discussing “how is Twitter helping writers?”

From the 24th to the 27th of May, Estelle Tang is hosting “15 Minutes of Fame” (FREE), at The Wheeler Centre, 7pm daily. These events will be mini book launches of books from a variety of fields. Well worth a look-in.

There’s a heap of (FREE) “guided writing exercises” from 6-7pm daily at the City Library, as part of “Creative Writing Bootcamp”… a good excuse to be forced to do something?

The 27th of May sees a regular Wheeler Centre event, “Lunchbox/Soapbox” (FREE) as part of the EWF, with Chris Flynn talking about “the role of heroic dogs in literature and movies”….sure. I’ll be there.

 “Wordstock” is always a huge event for the EWF, and it happens on the 27th May. It’s a night of performances from writers who have written in response to a certain band or artist. Last year was Nick Cave; this year is AC/DC. I met Emilie Zoe Baker not so long ago, and she’s a really amazing woman and poet. She’s performing here, as well as Sean M Whelan and some other great poets/writers, so get on down there. ($20/$10).

There’s some amazing stuff going on at the Town Hall on the 29th and 30th of May. Discussions about the writing process, what makes a good interview and all the hard parts of being a writer – the Town Hall program is a little pricier, but it’s where the bigger events happen and from the look of the lineup this year there will be some worthwhile discussions taking place in that building.

On the 29th May is an event the EWF have been talking about a lot in the lead-up to the program launch. “The Zine Bus” (FREE) is a bus which takes zines around Melbourne, and “culminates in a guerilla zine market” at Fed Square.

…The entirely too-long list of events above are only those I’m interested in. And I’ve just skimmed over the program, especially the Town Hall side of things. Get onto the EWF website, check out the program, get yourself down to some of the awesome events that will be on in just a few weeks’ time.

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