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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Book review: The Family Law, Benjamin Law (2011)

There were any number of reasons why I should read this book. Law is a freelance journalist, and so am I. Law grew up on the Sunshine Coast, which is where I live. Law is an Asian Australian, and I am interested in the experience of migrants and their children. And Law is gay, which is a cause I take very seriously and the way political parties address the issue usually determines how I vote.

Beyond these things, the book is very easy to read. It's also well-written. And Law appears to be determined to undermine stereotypes of the quiet, industrious Chinese family by showing a lot of the earthier elements of Chinese culture; there are a lot of "vaginas" and "penises", along with "shit" and "cunt", and it's not just the kids who bruise decorum. Law's mother Jenny is as down-to-earth as his brother Andrew, the determinedly heterosexual and masculine boy in the Law family. Law's sisters are here also (there are three girls, two boys) but it is Jenny Law and Law's comically hardworking father who emerge most well-defined from the narrative.

The two arrived in Australia in the 70s from Hong Kong, it appears. Later, many Hong Kong Chinese would come to Australia in the lead up to the handover by the British, which happened in 1997, but Chinese have been coming to Australia for over 150 years and there are many ethnically Chinese who are deeply embedded in Australian society through generations of native birth. In this book, one aspect of this common multicultural experience that is evident is what happens between parents who are foreign-born and their children, native-born. There are also some more routine generational issues; Jenny's hilarious attempts to come to grips with computers and the internet kept me giggling for pages.

Law's father made me laugh heartily, too, for his constitutional inability to be the recipient of gifts. This episode seemed to me to illustrate something about Chinese attitudes to duty and how that fits in with the idea of the family. Those strong family ties are threaded throughout the book, in so many ways. The family is the root of your consciousness, it appears, something so elemental that it permeates every aspect of your life. For an upwardly-mobile culture worker like Law, one who is easily placed on the progressive end of the political spectrum, these ties yet remain essential. You can see this is so in reading the quote Law places at the start of the book.

But beyond the possibility of cliche that such a view of an ethnically-Chinese family story might offer there's the routine chaos of family life. Every family contends with its own brand of chaos, but incipient disaster holds hands with strong interpersonal links in Law's family story as it does for every family on earth. It is this edge-of-your-seat normality that should represent one of the more important achievements of Law's book.

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