Last night I attended a book event at Kinokuniya bookstore with Will Kostakis and Benjamin Law discussing The ‘Gay’ Book. Benjamin Law, according to his Twitter bio, is a writer, raconteur, and local homosexual. In 2012 he published Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East as well as The Family Law, the latter of which was made into a TV series for SBS. He is currently writing its second season. Will wrote his first novel aged 19, called Loathing Lola which, I discovered, is very hard to track down and basically out of print. He was the 2005 Young Writer of the Year, he published his second novel The First Third three years ago, and has recently published The Sidekicks.
It was quite a turn out to hear the two speak; chairs were packed in with a few people opting to stand at the back. From the start it was humorous with jokes abound, Benjamin telling us it was the gay wedding of the year and we were divided into the groom side and the groom/bride side. The pair interviewed each other, asking questions back and forth, ribbing off one another, and hilarious discussions and confessions were told such as Ben seeing Will in a Speedo (which we were never provided context or explanation for), and Will wanting to be like Benjamin when he grew up.
Will spoke about how the controversy around The Sidekicks and his experience coming out was unexpected but something he couldn’t ignore. He was thrust into being ‘the gay writer’ overnight which was a shock. He made the decision to respond himself to the school and publically (names omitted) because if he responded in the dark, it would keep happening. He never expected it to spread as it had, saying the international response was disbelief that it had happened, while the Australian reaction recognised it as an ongoing problem. I love though that none of this has stopped people not only loving the book, but finding out ways to discuss it in places where it cannot be discussed, and Will told us some great stories of his experiences in schools.
Even though I’ve heard Will speak before about his work and his experiences, it’s always different and new. He told us he got into writing because he was reading books that felt like the author was holding back. His books try to be honest, something that comes across well according to his agent so that’s a good thing.
Having never heard Benjamin speak it was interesting to hear his story. Doing his PhD in Creative Writing he had to write everything, from stories, to memoirs, the journalistic pieces. In doing so he discovered he enjoyed writing memoir, it felt natural doing so. Like Will, Benjamin didn’t position himself as the gay writer, but he said you tend to identify with what separates you, in his case being gay and Asian; he joked he was basically a turducken of minorities. It was an interesting discussion because it was something I hadn’t thought much about. Benjamin told us that you really can’t disentangle yourself from those parts of you, and while he hoped his generation would be the last to be persecuted for being different, he was sad to see it hasn’t changed.
Benjamin spoke about growing up in a family of five and dealing with family issues such as his mother suddenly becoming a single parent. He said everything is about perspective, quoting one of my favourite sayings by Mel Brooks, ‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die’. Will asked him whether there was any hesitation in writing memoir, because while fiction can be filled with the writer, there is a barrier there. Benjamin said when you write a story you become the custodian of the story and you tell your story. He said readers should be smart enough to know that it wouldn’t be an expose or revenge letter, and know that it’d be a different story if his mum wrote it or his sister. As Will pointed out Benjamin’s books are great ‘what ifs’, what would have happened if his family had stayed in Asia, what his life would be like and what anyone’s would have been if they grew up somewhere else.
Will asked Benjamin about his show, The Family Law, and asked whether he was different now and whether it influenced the characters he writes. Benjamin made a great point about how characters and people are complex and flawed, no one is a villain. His character isn’t put on a pedestal nor is he perfect, Benjamin didn’t set out to make an Asian role model, he needed grit to them.
Amidst the humour and personal stories there were some brilliant points made about representation and how things like homosexuality is presented in books and the media. Will brought the ‘gayness’ forward in The Sidekicks because even in The First Third the gay character was trivialised in his opinion. Benjamin pointed out that we don’t talk about white heterosexual stuff like we do gay stuff. One of the important things that Will mentioned was that when people write a ‘gay’ book, they are not trying to convert people, they are just trying to show how other people live. And not only that, just because there is a gay character does not mean it is a ‘gay’ book. This was something that was also brought up by a brilliant audience question who asked why people can read about M/F kissing, but somehow if there is a M/M kiss somehow it becomes hypersexual and an issue.
Another question from the audience was asking the first place the boys came across a queer character and both gave quite different answers. Will’s was in year 9, reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, a sonnet where the author’s beloved is compared to both a man’s and a woman’s, raising question over the author’s sexuality. Will was afraid of being out and a successful author but he realised if Shakespeare could do it, then so could he. Such is the power of representation. Benjamin’s on the other hand was Melrose Place, no less profound than Shakespeare’s of course, but slightly different. The character in the show was barely a character, a sidekick of a sidekick, but it was something.
It was a fantastic evening and getting to listen to Benjamin and Will discussing their experiences, their work, and laughing at the ongoing witty and hilarious banter made it so enjoyable. Benjamin had filled us with his greeting card wisdom and both Will and Benjamin told us about the support they’d gotten from their families as well as cheeky anecdotes about them. It was wonderful because between the two of them they talked about some important and serious issues but they didn’t stand on a soap box, they used their experience and their own stories to open the conversation about what matters, what’s relevant right now, and why representation is important.
I got my copy of Loathing Lola signed by Will which was exciting. I had been chatting with him on Twitter that afternoon about the book and then via direct message and it was a fascinating discussion about where Loathing Lola came from, where is began, and a few surprises about his new book The Sidekicks and how it connected with his first book. If you can track down a copy it’s a pretty great read. Overall it was a brilliant bookish night out and I can’t wait for the next one!
I’ve included some links below if you want to find out more about Will and Benjamin and their work.
All Your Bits and Pieces Needs