Q&A with Neika Lehman

A photo of contributor Neika Lehman against a light turquoise and yellow wave-pattern background. To the left are three images of the magazine’s cover in a column. Text above the photo reads “THE SUBURBAN REVIEW magazine, issue: #21, theme: SALT”. To the right of the photo is the contributor’s name. Along the bottom of the image the magazine’s website “thesuburbanreview.com” is repeated three times.

NEIKA LEHMAN is a writer, visual artist, and member of this mob collective. Neika descends from the Trawlwoolway peoples of tebrakunna Country, lutruwita. Their written and visual work explores time, desire, Country, and the politics of memory in settler-colonial Australia.

Our Deputy Editor, Erin McFadyen, talks to Neika about their poetry suite ‘comber’ published in #21: Salt.

Your poem ‘Self preservation,’ in TSR #21, has a speaker who’s ‘usually private.’ How does your practice negotiate the relationship between the private/personal and the public? And what’s the place, for you, of poetry within this relationship?

There’s a few ways to answer this question. Being a university teacher is a pretty well known space for slippages between front stage and back stage personas, as is the alienating experience of being a sessional employee within an institution, particularly when you’re Aboriginal.

I think the less immediate comment here is about my still young writing process. Writing poetry was the form I expressed a lot of unhappy diary entries when I was a kid and was my habit. When I started taking poetry more seriously and thinking about questions of readership, I freaked out about how ‘exposing’ it all was. I initially responded by repressing direct personal details, trying to represent experience as abstractedly as possible. While I still enjoy this, to do so constantly was another kind of torment. Maybe the poem is admitting to itself that there is no real divide between personal and public in my practice.

One thing which I find so powerful about your poem ‘Mother’ is that it reads as an archival document, dealing with Australia’s settler-colonial history and our inheritances from this history in the present. How does your practice, more broadly, deal with this history?

This document is a letter my great x grandmother wrote to the colony requesting her mother be removed from Australia’s first permanent offshore detention centre at Wybalenna, where people were dying from illness at an infuriating rate. 

To ignore this part of my father’s genealogy would be to be part of this settler colony’s greater problem of wilful historical ignorance. I can’t ignore this genocidal past like my life – somewhat ironically – depends on it. Poetry is a great way to bring the government’s white supremacist processes to the public. I was inspired to write this based on the work of Narungga writer Natalie Harkin, and was given the records by my amazing cousin, Julie Gough.

(How) does your work as an artist, and as a researcher, also inform your writing?

Doing historical or academic research is a privileged skill I try to use as a way of building up new knowledge, as well as smuggling it out of the institution and into the more public realm of arts practice. Other artists inform my writing way more than my own attempts to story-tell outside of the written word. I often have particular visual artists in mind when I write, even if I don’t reference them directly. They colour my way of processing the world.