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There are rules and then there are the Laws

Australians across the nation will today celebrate Harmony Day, a day to recognise and embrace our cultural diversity as well as share what we have in common.

We reached out to Queensland author, Benjamin Law, to talk about the success of his TV-series, The Family Law.

The six-part series follows the comical dysfunction of a Chinese-Australian family, where the focus is not about race or culture, but rather the shared experiences of family life growing up on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

The Family Law is a Matchbox Pictures production in association with SBS Australia, Screen Australia and Screen Queensland.

The first series is now available on DVD and iTunes.




You’ve recently made the transition to television scriptwriter. How different has the scriptwriting process been from other writing you’ve done?

I did it with a lot of help. My Creative Writing PhD from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) focused on building my screenwriting skills and was supervised by veteran TV writers, Geoffrey Portmann and Carol Williams. The university support network, especially in a field like writing, gave me access to mentors and the structure to keep going.

When Tony Ayres, the Executive Producer of The Family Law, said he wanted to make my book into a TV show, there was a huge process of learning through Tony and our Producer, Sophie Miller, about what constituted good screenwriting and what you could actually make. The last few years writing and developing The Family Law has been like doing another undergraduate degree with the smartest people around. The most important thing for learning a new skill is to acknowledge that you’re the dumbest person in the room, learn from the people who are smarter and hope to God that you can keep up.

What was the role of Screen Queensland in developing your show, and what role do you see them play in telling Queensland stories?

Screen Queensland provided funding right back in the early stages of development of The Family Law. We see so few stories set in Queensland on the national stage compared to New South Wales and Victoria, and Screen Queensland were keen to support us to get our weird little show set on the Sunshine Coast on air.

A number of reviewers of The Family Law have focused on the depiction of a Chinese-Australian family and how few of these we see on Australian TV. Did you feel a bigger responsibility (other than to your immediate family) in how you portrayed the characters?

It was really important not be too caught up on that in the writing process. What made it easier was that we set out not to write a show about race or culture. The specifics of being Chinese-Australian were there – they’re eating congee for breakfast, parents are speaking with accents, there are moments where you see children teaching the parents vocabulary. All those things that are specific to growing up as a migrant family are there but the show’s plot wasn’t about that.

In some ways we relieved ourselves of that burden of having to represent all Chinese or all Asian-Australian families by saying this is a very particular family, and the show, in essence, isn’t about their race or their culture. It’s essentially a comedy about a marriage imploding, which of course is the funniest thing in the world!

One of the first things you hear in voiceover is Benjamin Law saying, “At first I thought my mum was unusual because she was Chinese, and then I realised it was just Mum”. In many ways it’s about how similar these experiences of family breakdown can be. At the same time, we don’t shy away from the fact that 90 per cent of the cast is Asian-Australian, Chinese and Japanese-Australian, and we’re really proud of that. We didn’t want to make any claims saying this is what every Chinese-Australian family looks like and I think in a strange roundabout way it resonated more because of how specific it was.

This year, Brisbane has enjoyed the Chinese New Year festivities, Eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, BrisAsia Festival and Black – a triple bill, a dance collaboration between Expressions Dance Company and the Guangdong Modern Dance Company from China. Do you think Australians are becoming more attuned to what Asian art and culture has to offer?

One in ten Australians has a significant Asian background and a lot of that background is Chinese. Cantonese and Mandarin are in the top five languages other than English spoken in Australian homes.

Australians are also familiar with Asian culture through our travels and through our cuisine. The Vietnamese pho soup is probably an Australian lunchtime staple. We all confidently cook stir fries in our home now and I imagine most Australian households have chopsticks in their cutlery drawer. Asian culture and Australian culture have overlapped in so many ways and that’s because Australia is such a young, still-forming country, at least in our post-colonisation version of Australia. It’s a story of migration and, of course, the Chinese especially have been here for a long time.

Acceptance of Asian cultures has been a long time coming. Australia federated in 1901 on a platform of the White Australia policy. In the 1970s the Vietnamese refugees were demonised. It takes a long time for Australia to recalibrate itself to remember or realise that Australia can look like many things and we will go through many iterations of what we look like.

What tips do you have for aspiring writers?

I don’t think university is mandatory. What it gave me was structure, mentors, and deadlines (I think that’s one of the most important things you have to adhere to as a writer).

It sounds old-fashioned but my main advice would be to read – read a lot. I’m often quite taken aback by people who want to be writers and I ask them, “Who do you like reading?”, and their reading repertoire is quite limited or non-existent. It’s like wanting to be a musician and not listening to music – such a strange thing. By reading, you teach yourself what makes good writing. Someone said that, “Writing and reading is like exercising in a gymnasium of empathy”, and reading really builds up those muscles.

If you’re not going to university or studying in an official capacity, Australia has got some of the best writers centres in the world, including the Queensland Writers Centre and the NSW Writers Centre. Each capital city has one. I’ve been to them all now and they always offer workshops and tell you about opportunities that are coming up.

You need to build a sense of community as well. Writing is a really solitary, lonely thing and you’ve got to feel you’re supported through the rough patches of which there are many. You can find that community by going to writers festivals, attending classes or workshops or joining book clubs. Surround yourself with people who want to do similar stuff to you and see them as allies not enemies.

Ten years ago you received a State Library of Queensland’s Young Writers Award. How do these types of awards help a new writer on the path to success?

They’re so important. Not only is it recognition that your work is valued, but they help boost your credibility, which is so important when you’re embryonic and starting out.

Plus, I remember the money helped me buy a new computer.

What’s next for Benjamin Law?

I’ve just come off working as a researcher for a documentary for SBS made by Blackfella Films and it’s about dozens of unsolved gay-hate crimes that happened in Sydney between the 1970s and the 1990s. It will be screened later this year on SBS.

I’m currently working on developing season two of The Family Law with some of the best people in the TV industry. A lot of the same team from last time have returned and it’s thrilling. We’ve already plotted out episodes one and two and we’ll go on to do three, four, five and six over the next few weeks.

Do you still see yourself as a Brisbane writer?

I’ve only been in Sydney for just over two years and I still feel like a tourist. My whole family is in Brisbane so it’s a wonderful feeling when you come back to a city and you know the streets like the back of your hand. Brisbane is still my home city.


The first series of The Family Law is now available on DVD and iTunes.