Questions for Ben
To use investigative journalism as a means for telling stories and to uncover what it is like to be gay in Asia in his latest book 'Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East'
Benjamin Law is supposed to be writing a column, but he’s been watching Oscars acceptance speeches on YouTube instead: “Writing’s not leisurely. Writing’s really hard.” he says over the line from Sydney, Australia. It comes as a surprise; Ben is the author of two books – both of which have been nominated for Australian Book Industry Awards. He is also a regular writer for The Monthly, Good Weekend and Frankie magazines, has casually co-authored a comedy book 'Sh*t Asian Mothers Say' with his sister, and has somehow also found the time to complete a PhD.
If it’s the writing that’s hard, his ability to throw himself into his adventurous research seems to come easily to him. In his most recent book, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East, Ben investigated what it’s like being gay in Asia. He took his kit off at Bali’s gay nudist resorts, went backstage at Thailand’s ladyboy beauty contests, hung out with Tokyo’s celebrity drag queens and even participated in Indian yoga classes designed to "cure" his homosexuality.
After he had agreed to an interview a few weeks back, I had been nervous like a fan-girl about to meet her favourite band backstage. While we were navigating time zones to arrange our talk, he was excited to hear that I would be calling from India, “Man I love that country… it’s so frickin’ huge”. This was an early and comforting sign that in person, Ben would be exactly how his books read – funny, sincere and endearingly real.
Outside of your books, you have written about a diverse range of topics - from Pauline Hanson to long distance love - where do you get the ideas for your writing?
A variety of places – (they can come from) reading the daily news and thinking, “oh, that would be an interesting story, what would it be like to be one of those people in that horrible situation?”
I’m a features writer, not a news writer, so I can take that news story and start investigating it on a more human level. Whether you want to go on an adventure somewhere, or if you want to know about someone’s life… writing is just about being a sticky beak. Well, writing non-fiction is. Whenever you’re curious and you want to ask why, or who, or what, which I find myself wanting to ask every day - that becomes a new story idea. So non-fiction writers should never be dry of story ideas, as long as they’re writing them down somewhere. That’s the biggest danger, forgetting what you want to write about.
I guess that explains, in part, how in your travels for Gaysia, you found yourself in some pretty bizarre situations. What was a particularly surreal moment that happened?
I hadn’t been to India before, and I flew out of Australia on New Years Day, so I hadn’t slept. I was flying into a country that I hadn’t stepped into before, and I knew it would maybe be a bit more difficult than other countries I’d been to as well. I get off (the plane), I’m by myself and I negotiate a car - which takes like two hours or something. It wasn’t even necessarily an experience that had to do with the specifics of the book, but it was that I was going to this remote holy town in the north, when I’d just come out of the Australian summer, to get out into this yoga school to meet a man who claims that yoga can change your sexuality…. I think that was the moment I thought, “my whole life is insane. This whole thing is insane”. I had read about this man, who seemed interesting and maybe slightly crazy in newspaper reports in Australia and now I’m about to see him. And it’s freezing and I’m pissing in a cement urinal that smells like shit. So, yeah. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It’s not like “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening” but “Oh my god, why are you doing this?”
I stopped writing Gaysia about two to three years ago – when I think about what I did, I get exhausted just thinking about it. Whereas, at the time I was like, “right, onto the next country!”
Was there anyone or anything that really tested your patience during your research for the book?
I think a lot of interviewees tested my patience in a lot of ways, but that’s because we came from different cultural backgrounds as well. Testing your patience always implies anger, but sometimes people would test my patience in ways that would just make me sad. Like the young people who were roughly my age in Malaysia, who really believed that they were being delivered out of homosexuality through Christianity. Part of me wanted to grab them in a very unprofessional way and say, “I live in Australia and my boyfriend and I have Christmas dinners together and our families join up! This could be your life too!” and of course that’s not true, at all. As I wrote in the book, some of them had been through electroshock therapy, taken a lot of anti-depressants or have been over-prescribed medication in efforts to suppress their sexuality or their desires. When they said they were in a much better place because of this religious therapy - that took me a really long time to be okay with. Not to be okay with necessarily, but to say actually, you are sort of right. Of all the options, maybe this is the better one for you. It’s not the one I agree with, it’s one I find completely horrific - but, out of all their options, it seemed to be the better one - which was disturbing.
I’m interested to know how you handled the relationships you built with the more conservative or close-minded individuals you met – like the Malaysian pastor who claimed that Christianity ‘fixed’ him of his homosexuality. Did any of them ask to read the book after it was published?
I was pretty transparent about it. I made a rule that I would never lie about who I was or where I came from, but I would also never talk about myself unless I was asked. They never asked about my background or whether I was gay or not - since then, they haven’t asked to see the book. I feel like that relationship has been quite clear.
I think that whole idea about being objective is quite problematic. I think anyone brings their biases to anything they write, you prioritise what you think is important, you bring value to it… A bullet-point list of things that happened isn’t storytelling. I wanted to be clear in the book that whatever value judgments I made about people, they were mine, and mine alone.
All this ‘investigative journalism’ is a pretty gutsy venture, isn’t it?
There’s that notorious quote by Janet Malcolm, every journalist shrivels up and dies when they read it. Have you read ‘The Journalist and the Murderer’? Janet Malcolm is an American non-fiction writer and journalist, and there’s a book she wrote that covered a case about another writer who betrayed the murderer’s confidence when they had told them that they were on their side. And Janet Malcolm says, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He’s the kind of confidence man, preying on peoples’ vanity, ignorance or loneliness - gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Yeah. I think that’s a very extreme take on what journalism is, but I think there is a very central truth in it, especially if you’re trying to get access to difficult or controversial stories. And these are people who are trying to convert people out of their sexuality, through the power of Christ or through the power of Allah, and I have a take on that. At the same time, I can be fair - but I don’t think I can be objective.
The idea of objectivity is a pretty flimsy one - that there is a neutral stance on anyone that you talk to. I mean, we choose our stories on things we find interesting, or a person we find interesting. In terms of where my obligations lie in writing a story about someone, of course - sometimes it’s a relationship that you build over emails over weeks, and you sit with them for hours and they tell you things they haven’t even told people close to them either.
What is it like developing a relationship with people who are so vulnerable, but then writing about them publicly and giving your voice to a piece?
I think rather than holding back or trying to smother your feelings about these people, it’s worth being up front to them and the reader about what’s going on in your head. The reader brings their own background and response to that too - they could say, “Well, I don’t really agree with that writer”. And I think that’s a really healthy thing to have those negotiations.
For Good Weekend last year I did a story on sex abuse that happens between siblings. I was interviewing namely survivors and victims, but also a perpetrator or two. In those situations, you just have to hear them out. That’s the main thing you can do, to shut up and learn about their stories. Especially with a subject matter that’s that sensitive, you want to make sure it’s not sensationalised. And I think that’s the distinction for me; it’s not necessarily about objectivity, but whether it’s fair. And I think to sensationalise people’s lives is one example of being unfair.
Do you ever lose motivation?
Yeah, all the time. That’s the dirty thing about writing. The people who say, “I can’t wait to get home to write!” - don’t trust them. They’re weird. And they’re probably not writers. And they probably see it as leisure. I need to activate a program called ‘Freedom’ often to block off the internet, just so I can focus. By force.
How did you become a writer?
I was obsessed with magazines when I was a teenager. I went through a phase when I wasn’t reading as many books as I did when I was a kid, but music magazines - I was one of those annoying kids who would write letters to the editor of Rolling Stone on my dial-up modem. I persisted and persisted. I just thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll just write to the Editor of The Rolling Stone. That’s no big deal”. Then one of my letters was chosen as letter of the month, and I got a stereo! Which was great - I was raised in a family of five and shared a bedroom with my brother for so many years, that I never had my own stereo. So that was magical. I thought “Writing’s amazing, it pays so well!”.
It was really from that point onwards - not just because of the stereo but through reading the stories in those magazines as well. I was in coastal Queensland, and didn’t feel part of a big city or anything, so those magazines were pretty amazing access points to stories about music or current affairs or global events. I thought, that this would be a pretty cool job, so I enrolled in a Creative Writing degree in Brisbane,. As I finished that I was doing work experience for Street Press. It’s not even that interesting a story, really; from Street Press I went to newspapers, from newspapers I went to glossy magazines, from glossy magazines I started putting books together.
If you were to write a fiction novel, what do you think you would write about?
Ahh. I don’t know. I’m terrible at writing fiction. I’m really interested in social forays and etiquette, and when people transgress those things. I’ve always wanted to write a play or a short story about this thing I heard - there was a caller to Dan Savage’s podcast, you know, the sex advice columnist? There was a guy that called in, and he said, “I’m a guy in my 30s, I’m definitely not ugly, objectively speaking – yet, I can’t seem to hold down a long-term relationship and I don’t know what’s wrong with me”
And Dan Savage said, “Well, maybe what you need to do is get several friends over, and ask them honestly, ‘I would like you to tell me what’s wrong with me’. Maybe you’ve got terrible body odour and nobody’s every told you, or maybe you’re a misogynistic fuckwit.” I always thought that would be a really interesting premise to play with.
Every time I read about your mother I think, ‘Ah! I relate!’ and I think a lot of second-generation Asian kids probably do. As a constant source of inspiration for you, does your mother realise she’s funny?
Oh, yeah. She knows it. She loves to laugh, and one of her greatest sources of laughter is herself, really. She loves when she gets things wrong or mispronounces things, and we teach her. She knows she’s funny. She is funny.
How is it working together on Law School, the sex advice column you write together?
Oh, it’s really fun. Once every couple of months we get new questions, and it’s a good opportunity to sit with my Mum on the phone and go, “Oh my gosh, someone’s got a question about their flatmate’s dildo. What do you think, Mum?” It’s a total hoot. My Mum and my entire family have always been pretty frank about that stuff, and she’s certainly learning a lot more about young peoples’ sex lives. She gives the most hilarious inappropriate answers and I’m like, “Mum! I don’t think you seriously mean that, do you?” and she’ll answer “Yes, if my flatmate was hiding their dildo and they accused me of being a masturbator, I would confront them about it with the dildo in my hand in front of the other housemates and humiliate her!” And I would be like, “What would that achieve?” as I’m typing down her response.
Both your books have focused a lot on your culture and family, culture and sexuality. Is there any aspect you’d like to explore further? Is there a future book you can envisage?
As much as my books have focused on issues like ethnicity, race and sexuality, I think I can’t not see things through that lens, because I happen to be - in Australia at least - an ethnic minority, and I happen to be gay. But that’s just a particular lens that I see anything through. Whether I focus on it or not, is another issue. I think a white, male perspective is a very real thing but everyone just sees it as neutral. That’s also a type of ethnic, sexual framework as well - it just happens to be a much more normalised one. We all see things through our own particular lens.