Interview: Benjamin Law talks Boundless Festival, Australian Lit, Agony Aunts and Plebiscites

On Saturday 28th October the Bankstown Arts Centre is to play host to Boundless, a new literary festival bringing together Indigenous and culturally diverse Australian authors, both emerging and established, with readers to help celebrate the changing face of Australian literature.

Presented by the NSW Writers’ Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre, Boundless, is a free event which includes performances, readings, panel discussions, audiovisual experiences, workshops for children and adults, as well as opportunities for audience members to mingle with the writers and purchase signed copies of their books.

The festival will also seek to ask and answer some of the big questions confronting Australian literature, such as: Who can write whose stories? How do you write about family without offending your own? What are the Indigenous stories all Australians need to hear? How can refugees tell of their experiences in a language that is not their own? And what have successive waves of migrants brought to our national literary culture?

Ahead of the Festival we caught up with one of the attendees and panelists; author, journalist and columnist Benjamin Law, to discover his thoughts about the festival, some of the culturally diverse authors we should all be checking out, and what it’s like dishing out relationship and sex advice with the help of his Mum.

How important do you think festivals like Boundless are in the Australian literary calendar?

By some measures, Australia’s one of the most diverse nations on the planet. We’re home to the oldest living, surviving and thriving human cultures and communities bar none, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island storytelling spanning back millennia and continuing to present day. About half of us have parents born overseas and a quarter of us are migrants. One in five speak languages other than English at home. And yet that’s rarely the image of Australia we export or tell ourselves. Showcasing Australian writing in all of its diversity is a vital start.

As part of the festival you’re chairing a panel of writers who are reshaping the landscape of Australian literature. Who are some of the writers pushing the definition of ‘Australian Literature’, in whatever medium, you believe we need to be checking out? And why?

Alice Pung, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Peter Polites, Julie Koh and Melanie Cheng are names that immediately spring to mind. All write across the board of genres, but each has hit me in the guts in different ways over the past few years. Some of their stories make me cry, others make me burst out laughing, but all make me look up from the page and see Australia differently.

A lot of different (ideological) groups have attempted to lay claim to the meaning of ‘Australian’ – what defines ‘Australianness’ for you?

We’re a happily mongrel nation and one of the most diverse on the planet. And we’re a happy group of contradictions that must be acknowledged: the home to the oldest living human cultures and communities bar none, as well as one of the youngest modern immigrant nations on earth. If you disagree with me, die angry about it.

Your PhD, in part, looked at representations of Asian-Australians on TV. Since submitting, have you noticed any changes, differences or improvements in these depictions on Australian television?

Finally, it’s not unusual to see non-white people on TV any more, but it’s still common to see all-white casts too. Given one-third of Australians aren’t Anglo, we’re not seeing a revolution; we’re simply seeing a start.

Another of the panels you are taking part in looks at writing about family, how did your family react to your book The Family Law?

They loved both the book and the TV show, to the point where my Mum helped promote the book on Sunrise, and all my family members have made cameo appearances on the TV show. It’s wild.

You’ve recently released Law School, a book of sex and relationship advice, with your mum. Having the ‘talk’ with your parents is something most kids balk at, so what was the motivation behind the book?

For anyone who’s seen the show or read the book of The Family Law, you’ll know my Mum has no boundaries. In fact, anyone who’s met my Mum says her on-screen character is the M15+ version of the X-rated reality. But she was always really open, frank and curious about sex, relationships and sexuality, and I’ve always been open with her. It was the weirdest pitch when the Lifted Brow first got us writing it, but cut to six years later and here we are. We hope it starts filthy, filthy conversation.

Have you enjoyed the experience of writing your agony aunt column with your Mum?

It’s been great. It also reminds us to have long, laugh-filled chats on the phone, which is great.

We’re in the midst of a divisive and polarising plebiscite debating marriage equality, a debate which has seen you pilloried by some sections of the media. In such a divisive time, with plenty of hate spouted by some media outlets, what gives you hope for the future?

Younger people. Without prompting, my sisters have leafletted their entire neighbourhood with a letter as to why they’re voting YES. My friends’ kids proudly helped their parents tick the survey and wave rainbow flags fully aware of what it means, and angrier about what’s happening than most adults I know. They’re the future. And I’m into it.

Boundless Festival takes place on October 28th and is presented by the NSW Writers’ Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre, in collaboration with Sweatshop, WestWords, Urban Theatre Projects, Bankstown Youth Development Service, CuriousWorks and the Bankstown Poetry Slam. It is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund and Pantera Press. For more information on the festival, and to access the full festival program visit HERE.

Benjamin Law is a journalist, columnist and screenwriter. His books The Family Law and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East are available from Black Inc. He is also the author of the most recent issue of the Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal