“We are not a monolith”: Blackfulla Bookclub’s Merinda Dutton on elevating First Nations stories

January 27th 2021

Image: Natalie McComas and Carine Thevenau

Out of the Box’s Mia Hull sat down with Merinda Dutton, co-founder of Blackfulla Bookclub and one of our 2020 SMAC Award recipients, to chat about the book club’s origins, goals and the importance of uplifting diverse First Nations stories.

In every sense, book clubs are about community. They connect people by sharing stories, paperback, wine, and cheese. 

But in 2020, we had to change the way we do things communally. People adapted, compromised, and accepted that storytelling would now come with a side of Zoom lag. This however wasn’t the reality for Gumbaynggirr and Barkindji lawyer Merinda Dutton, and Teela Reid, a fellow lawyer and Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, signed up for. They flourished instead.

It began with Merinda starting a Zoom book club to stay in touch with friends while in lockdown. Then it became the Instagram handle @blackfulla_bookclub, which within a week gained more than a thousand followers. Today, it’s become a  diverse storytelling community with more than 32,000 members, and the winner of FBi Radio’s SMAC Award for Best Pandemic Pivot.

“Stories have the power to keep people connected, and I think that has been a beautiful thing about Blackfulla Bookclub,” Merinda said. “We’re really honoured to be able to celebrate First Nations stories, and to be able to reflect the stories of our ancestors as the original storytellers.”

The FBi SMAC Award for Best Pandemic Pivot is awarded to someone who was able to think on their feet and find creative solutions to social distancing restrictions. For Merinda and Teela, this meant acknowledging that there was a need for connection and community not only with each other, but with First Nations stories. 

“I think the success of Blackfulla Bookclub is really about the fact that there is a hunger for First Nations stories. The pandemic has caused people to look inwards, and to really reconnect to what is real. I think some of those answers are in First Nations stories – and they always have been.”

Merinda also attributes the success of the project to her friendship with Teela. They each bring something different to the table – creating a space where diverse ideas and stories are shared.

“We’ve known each other for about 10 years, and I think us doing the page together is probably another thing that makes it so successful. We are quite different in terms of who we are – but also in terms of the kinds of stories we engage with, and the kinds of books we read. Teela really likes non-fiction; I’m not a huge non-fiction fan myself. I really love sci-fi, fantasy, and futurism.”
“So I think it’s a reflection of us as First Nations people as well. We’re not a monolith. We’re all different. And I think that’s what we bring to the table together as a team.” 

Blackfulla Bookclub was born in response to a pandemic, but its impact will be felt long after restrictions ease. Merinda said that before the book club, there wasn’t really a space where blackfullas were talking about blackfulla stories. She and Teela have created exactly that space, and in it Aboriginal people can use their own voices to tell their own stories; as they have done for thousands of years.  

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