Every year, the Byron Writer’s Festival attracts a veritable treasure trove of the country’s most exciting voices to our stunning shores, and this year is no exception. Among the list of literary guests landing in Byron this August is writer and broadcaster Benjamin Law, best known for his autobiographical television series ‘The Family Law’, and bestselling book ‘Gaysia’, a frank exploration of attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ spectrum across various Asian countries.
Now, Law is returning with something a little different, in the form of an anthology of true stories that he not written but rather collated and edited, entitled ‘Growing Up Queer in Australia.’ The book assembles real life stories from across the spectrum of sexual and gender identity, with a great diversity of age, culture and upbringing represented. The one thing the contributors have in common is – you guessed it – they all grew up queer* in Australia.
“Choosing the stories was actually quite tough,” Ben tells us, when we manage to catch him in between festival engagements. “I have to say we got hundreds of submissions and we had to boil them down.”
“One of the challenges we faced was representing the diversity of our community. With any kind of community there is rich diversity, but with LGBTQIA+ people, the lesbian experiences are not the same as the trans experiences which is not the same as the bi, intersex, and so on.”
“Within the queer community there is also cultural and generational diversity. You watch the Mardi Gras or any pride parade and we are a big hot mess – in the best possible way – so that the was the first thing we had to consider, and the second thing was a gut feeling. Are these the stories that are compelling, are funny, tragic, sexy? We wanted the reader to feel like they’d had a big satisfying banquet by the end.”
And that’s exactly what they’ve done. You can read our full review of the book in this month’s mag, but for here I’ll just say, I wish I’d had books like this around when I was younger. And so does Ben.
“My sense of this book is that it’s for everyone – queer or cisgender and straight people alike. One of the successes of Black Ink Books is their outreach to schools, so part of my thinking was ‘what are the stories I would have loved to have read as a queer person in school?’”
Although LGBTQIA+ characters and stories are almost always at the heart of Law’s work, his genres have run the gamut through memoir, travel, a treatise on safe schools, articles, comedies, relationship advice, screenplays and now an anthology of other people’s stories. It feels like he’s determined to mix things up at all costs, and I wonder if that’s a deliberate choice.
“I do get bored easily,” he admits.
“But I think I probably write like I read, which is pretty omnivorously and sluttily! I read serious journalism, I read personal essays, I go to the theatre and see new playwrights. And I watch a lot of television which is another way to consume writing. I’m interested in all of those forms and the capacity they have to tell different stories.”
As for all the different stories in ‘Growing Up Queer in Australia’, I ask Ben for his favourite, and he groans.
“Where do I start? It’s like the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ of stories.”
“Obviously It was so wonderfully exciting to get stories from people like David Marr and Holly Throsby and Sue-Ann Post, these big names, but similarly, right from the start Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen who writes the story of her queerness and how it related to her Vietnamese-Australian family was so wonderful. The Jack Kirne story about going to a Catholic boys’ school is both confronting and sexy, and Phoebe Hart’s story is intense, giving us those insights from one of our least heard of minorities, I was so glad to get her story as well. But ask me next week, and I’ll probably give you different answers!” he laughs.
Well if you head to the Byron Writer’s Festival from 2 to 4 August this year, you can ask him yourself, when Ben appears alongside guests such as Behrouz Boochani, Leigh Sales, Damon Gameau, Tara Winch, and more. Full program and tickets are available at byronwritersfestival.com.
*Please note we are using the term ‘queer’ to denote the current popular meaning of “not straight” or “not cis”.
IMAGE (c) Paul Harris