books nostalgia

Law unto himself

Benjamin Law is an immensely talented writer from Queensland so when his first book, The Family Law, was released a few weeks ago I couldn’t wait to read it. The book is a memoir of Ben’s childhood as the third of five kids growing up as one of the first Asian families on the Sunshine Coast. On first glance it might seem odd for a twenty-something writer to make his first book a memoir, but once you get a taste of the family in question it’s a no-brainer.

Ben is probably best known and loved for his work as a senior writer for Frankie Magazine, and he’s also had a lot of work published in The Monthly. There are dozens of amazing writers of the same generation around Australia, but I think Ben is unique (and uniquely adored) because he’s a virtuoso at balancing humour with authenticity. Ben has an eye for a winning anecdote, and a love of words that lights up the page. The book opens with Ben describing the family dictionary, a homemade reference book compiled each year from family slang and jargon.

Some entries are universally suggestive and you wouldn’t need to be a family member to understand them. No one needs to stretch their imagination to figure out what a slitoris might be. Heurgh – uttered as if you’re dry-retching – denotes disgust and horror at something. Flahs is a bouquet of fancy flowers, and scrongtrum still sounds funny, even if you haven’t seen the difficulty my mother has in pronouncing ‘scrotum’.

The obvious reference point for this book is the work of David Sedaris. If you’re not familiar with Sedaris, for god’s sake get reading or listen to his readings/talks on NPR. Both Sedaris and Ben are sharply witty, self-conscious and self-deprecating, openly gay and blessed with colourful family stories they pillage with joy. The differences are all in context – Sedaris’ mid-western boy living in Paris might have an edge of sophistication, but Ben’s world is all suburban shopping malls, weekends spent touring the Sunny Coast’s low-rent amusement parks (Superbee, Forest Glen Deer Sanctuary, “the Big Bottle” constructed from countless stinking beer empties), and the vague sense of lawlessness of schools perched on the edge of wild tropical vegetation.

Like any childhood worth its salt, Ben’s memoir is bristling with cringe-worthy moments of embarrassment. In other writers it might feel deplorable to serve up one’s most humiliating moments in the name of self-deprecating egotism, but Ben’s so forthright about loving the spotlight at whatever cost it’s kinda charming. There’s an entire chapter on his dealings with a talent school in a bid to land his dream role on Home & Away. When he finally gets an audition for a speaking role in a film, he only realises he’s being typecast when he’s asked if he can tone down his Australian accent and talk more Asian.

Ben’s mum Jenny emerges as the undisputed star of the book – expect a Facebook fan page for her any day now. One of my favourite vignettes from the book plays with the recurring motif of Jenny’s love of learning new english words, and it also gives you an indication of the unapologetic toilet humour the book sometimes employs.

Controversially, Mum insists she first learned the word cunt from me. I don’t remember the exact circumstances clearly enough to verify the claim, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. Mum says that afterwards, as often seems to happen when you’ve learned a new word or concept, she inexplicably started seeing and hearing it everywhere. ‘The next on on SBS,’ she told me, ‘there was this European movie with a woman screaming at her husband because she found out he was having an affair. She yelled to him: “You only like her because her cunt smells like eggplant!” That’s what it said in the subtitles. And suddenly I realised that I knew what this word was. Cunt. It ws that same word you told me not to use at parent-teacher meetings.’

The Family Law is a real memoir for my generation. It’s a bit like the 80s exhibition at the Powerhouse in the sense that it’s so exciting to see all these hallmarks of your childhood curated together, but it feels a bit weird because you don’t feel old enough for your childhood to be the stuff of museums and memoir!

Ben’s on the press trail at the moment – his hometown appearances at Avid Reader this Thursday and Friday sold out weeks ago. If you manage to get in I’d love to hear about it – on one of the evenings he’ll appear in conversation with his mum! He’s also going to be at Readings in Melbourne on June 17. There doesn’t seem to be a Sydney event booked in yet but I’m hoping to help organise something through work this week. Will keep you posted!

The Family Law is a finished-in-a-day, laugh-out-loud-on-the-bus, dog-ear-every-second-page read. It’s the kind of book that regularly throws up the conundrum of whether to call your mum/sister/mate immediately to share a new gem, or whether to keep reading. It’s the kind of book you want to buy for everyone you love. It’s hilarious and moving to get such a generously intimate peek into the eccentricities of another family. For a sneak peek try this piece of Ben’s from The Lifted Brow.

Just get the book. You won’t regret it.

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