Nakkiah Lui is a writer for TV and theatre, and a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman. She is an associate playwright in residence at Belvoir and has just finished writing and filming Black Comedy, due to broadcast in 2014 on the ABC. She spoke to A•STAR about her career and life so far.
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Sydney – I was born in Sydney, grew up in Sydney’s Western suburbs, around the Mt Druitt area. My mother is Gamillaroi and my father is Torres Strait Islander – that’s my Indigenous background I guess, like where I’m from. But I grew up in Western Sydney, so on Dharuk land.
In what way did your schooling change who you are?
When I was in Year 11 I got an opportunity to go study the International Baccalaureate in Canada at an international college called United World College. So I went from 2003 to 2005, I was on this tiny island called Vancouver Island in British Columbia at this school with about 200 students from over 88 different countries, doing my International Baccalaureate. That was amazing, it was an eye opener.
Nelson Mandela was the honorary president when he was alive. The former queen of Jordan is the president of the college. It was a really great experience in that it kind of gave me this whole capacity for empathy, which I think I always had but my understanding of it and my understanding of the world completely changed.
This idea of having to tell my story became important to me. It was the only way of how to share my culture, and by culture I mean, I don’t mean traditions and things like that – it was more about what is the kind of history of Australia, and what has been my family’s experience and things like that. It’s so secret and hidden within the myth that is Australia, and the way that we create history here.
I went on to university when I got back, went and did Arts/Law, discovered far too long into my law degree that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, not that I didn’t enjoy law, I just couldn’t see myself in that career. I just loved telling stories far too much.
I imagine that you were feeling a lot of pressure to succeed. What was it like dealing with that?
I’ve always been fairly obnoxious and unapologetic and rude, I guess, not really hiding those aspects of my personality. As you’re kind of told you should – being the Aboriginal person that gets the scholarship – you have to be, you know, polite and charming and kind of appeasing and all those other aspects of your identity kind of get pushed into this idea of what you think you should be.
And part of me always rebelled against that. I’m not this good Indigenous leader, who had a scholarship and is doing law; I’m a woman and I make mistakes and I like going out, and I guess, you know, as immature and as juvenile that can be, I’m kind of happy I was like as it gave me room to have people see me as more than what people want to see you as.
Would you encourage young Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders to follow your example, in that respect?
Yeah, totally. Don’t be afraid, don’t apologize for who you are, don’t be who you think someone wants you to be.
I did this workshop with this playwright called David Greek, and he said this amazing thing and I love it, it’s kind of my mantra when it comes to my work, but also I think it’s a really great way to live your life. He said, when you’re telling stories, ‘Always try and offend your mother’.
And he meant it; you know, people love a bit of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, when watching entertainment – I know I do – but you shouldn’t have to censor yourself. Ultimately, aside from being an Aboriginal person, aside from being an academic, aside from being educated, all these ways you try to define people through race and class and sex, ultimately you’re an individual and you can be as complex as you want to be and people like that.
I think my take on how I see the world, that I haven’t been apologetic and I haven’t tried to change that innate obnoxiousness is kind of what’s got me my work, that’s how I make my living.
To what extent has your Aboriginality influenced your work?
For me, Aboriginality is a lived experience. It’s constructed, it’s not innate in who we are. We like to think that, but it’s a part of who we are because of how we’re brought up and because of the world that exists around us.
Because other people have ideas about Aboriginality, and you don’t have to feel like you have to justify Aboriginality or Indigeneity, you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to represent it in any way because at the end of the day you’re you, because of your experiences, because of the accumulation of moral, ethics and history that every person has. Once I realized that Aboriginality was a constructed thing by other people, I found great freedom in how I could express myself.
It plays a huge role, because my family is black. Their experience of social equity, of human rights, and my experience of social equity and human right has been effected by the power relationships behind whiteness and blackness and how Aboriginality is defined in this country. That’s why it plays such a big aspect in my work. It’s part of me, it’s how I see the world, but at the same time, its not the Aboriginality that’s inherently a part of me, it’s the effects of that, and how I have to live that experience.
And finally, do you have any advice for young Indigenous people for what they’re going to do after you leave high school?
When you leave school, don’t feel like you have to know everything straight away, it’s okay not to know. On a practical level, in my first years of university I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea how university worked. I just went to stuff. It took a really long time for things to click, to realize lecturers are humans – but it’s only now that I’m really able to have amazing conversation with my lecturers because I can see them as people.
But you don’t have to know. For me it felt like it took a long time to realize what path I was on and I still question what path I’m on now – do I want to write for my entire life? I’m not entirely sure. I kind of see myself doing other stuff. I worked for a legal service for a long time throughout my university education and after.
I think, take your time, enjoy yourself, see as much of the culture, go see art, go see plays, go to the free sausage sizzles, its not all about academics. How you see the world, how you filter information extends far beyond the tools you learn in a lecture room.