Carl Merrison & Hakea Hustler on Dirrarn

Article | Nov 2023

CARL MERRISON & HAKEA HUSTLER are the authors of acclaimed novels Tracks of the Missing and Black Cockatoo. Their latest novel Dirrarn is the winner of the 2021 Daisy Utemorrah Award and much anticipated sequel to Black Cockatoo. Good Reading for Young Adults caught up with them to talk about the book.



We first met Mia in Black Cockatoo, as she navigated her way through culture, Country and familial ties. Dirrarn follows Mia as she finds herself at boarding school. She faces the challenges of living thousands of kilometres away from home, family, and the big sky country she loves. Mia along with her best friend, Naya, negotiate new friends, new ways of thinking and new ways of being. Mia wrestles with all that is unfamiliar. She soon learns to stand in her truth when confronted with unending challenges.

The dirrarn (black cockatoo) is Mia’s totem animal. It provides her with the strength and freedom to stay connected to her world. Even when she is a long way from home. It is this totem she draws upon. Dirrarn is a sensitive story on the power of place, personality and the honour of standing up for the truth.





We’ve already met Mia in the first novel, Black Cockatoo. Can you tell us about the challenges she will face in this new story?  

In the last few chapters of Black Cockatoo Mia was torn about whether to attend boarding school or stay on Country. In Dirrarn Mia has just arrived at boarding school in Perth, over 2500 kilometres, two flights and hours from her home, family, culture and Country. Mia faces culture shock, bullying and racism in her new school. Mia also has opportunities to try new things, make new friends, explore new places, and learn about life in the city.  

Mia is like many real life outback kids who go schooling away at boarding school in big cities. Mia’s challenges are like the real life ones that students in Year 7 and onwards face. Especially when attending boarding schools so far away from home.  

For readers, you might picture it like travelling to go to school in an overseas country with a different culture, language and way of being. It is a very big move for many outback kids.  


What can you tell us about the dirrarn and its significance?  

Dirrarn is the Jaru name for black Cockatoo. The dirrarn is Mia’s totem animal from the first book. Mia is still guided by this totem animal in her new journeys off Country in Perth.  

When you see big flocks of dirrarn in the Kimberley it signifies that rain is coming. A change in weather. The two books represent big changes in Mia’s life.  


 Can you tell us about your writing process and what inspired you to write Mia’s story? 

Dirrarn-1Mia’s story started when we had time to write back in 2016. We didn’t really know it was going to become a published book. We just wanted to show our children that they can be strong no matter where they are, and that they are always connected. We were also inspired to write by the young people in Halls Creek District High School that we were working with. We wanted to write stories that they could access, read and be inspired by.  

When Magabala first accepted Black Cockatoo to publish we got an advance of $250 and a contract to publish 500 books. We were stoked. It was enough for schools in the Kimberley. Since then the story has gone on to be shortlisted in many awards and win the CBCA Honour Book in 2019.  

Daisy Utemorrah award-winning sequel Dirrarn was inspired by the many kids in the Kimberley who go to boarding school. Both Carl and Hakea had seen students come and go – some staying to complete their studies in boarding schools, while others came back to finish at a Kimberley school. Some students had a second chance at a boarding school and found their feet once they knew what to expect. Some students came back so defeated that they eventually dropped out of school having not found a place in school in community or away. We wanted to show the complexities, the challenges, the resilience and strength of outback kids.  


 What can you tell us about Mia and Naya’s friendship? 

Mia and Naya are both Aboriginal girls from the Kimberley. They have connections but had never met or heard of each other before attending boarding school together. That is really similar to young people in the Kimberley. It is so vast and spread out, but there are many family connections that spread right across the top end and beyond.  

The girls are both new, experiencing the same challenges, and become friends.  


Throughout the book Mia is navigating an unfamiliar environment. What do you hope readers learn from Mia’s struggles? 

Dirrarn-picMost people in Australia would not even realise that many outback students would have to attend boarding school … or no school at all. Some remote outback communities do not have schools beyond primary school.  

Most people in Australia would not realise the big cultural and language differences between some outback Indigenous communities, and Standard Australian English and Western culture in big cities. Readers might be able to understand if they imagine themselves 12 years old, living in an Asian country or a European country with a different language, different foods, different ways of being, different ways of schooling … Far away from home. 

Most people would not have lived experience of systemic or personal racism. This is something that Carl, Mia the character, and many First Nations people have faced in real life.  

We hope that boarding school teachers read this book and use it to help shape the way they interact with First Nations boarding students. We hope it sparks their interest to go out and learn more. For teachers in remote communities as well, we hope they read the book and realise the complexities that their students might face if they go schooling away. We hope they can use the book as a tool to prepare young people for the big transition. We hope students read it and are made aware of what boarding school students face. So they can be empathetic and kind if they have new students at their schools. And we hope remote students read it and feel prepared and aware of some of the challenges.  

We just hope that this book sparks conversations and interest so that people go away and upskill and learn more. And that it open hearts and minds.  


Mia finds herself at boarding school, away from family and Country. How did you approach writing about this, and did you draw from any personal experiences to help shape this? 

When Carl was in high school his remote school only went up to Year 10. It was boarding school or out to work. Many of his friends chose boarding school, many of his friends chose work, some of his friends fell between the cracks without clear pathways.  

Carl had been an educator for many, many years at Halls Creek District High School in roles of teacher’s assistant, Aboriginal Education Officer, and as a Clontarf Officer. He had supported many students who went to school away, those who came back, those who went back and forth … and those who felt disheartened left school without a clear future pathway. He had interacted with boarding school teachers, families, and students.  

Hakea is of European descent, born on Wadawurrung Country in Geelong and raised between there and Bundjalung Country in Northern Rivers. While she had a tumultuous childhood that involved a few school changes, it was always a given that she could access high school options for as long as needed. There were work, tafe and university options available in both rural regions.  

Hakea worked in remote schools across the Kimberley for many years. She supported young people in their applications and in their transitions. Hakea saw students come and go from boarding schools. Heard their stories, their opportunities, challenges and vulnerabilities. Hakea also worked in a special girls program at Broome Senior High School working with students from remote community schools who lived in the residential house nearby. She supported these Year 7 and 8 students with homesickness, transitioning to a rural boarding school, the different schooling expectations and ways of doing things.  

Both Carl and Hakea had seen the push and pull factors that influence families decisions to send their children to boarding school, or bring them back.    


What was the significance of the setting in this story? 

Dirrarn-2Black Cockatoo is set on Jaru Country in the Kimberley Western Australia. A place close to where Carl lived. Mia spreads her metaphorical wings and goes to school down on Noongar Country in Boorlo/Perth. She is off Country and very aware of this fact.  

We could have set the second book in Darwin, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide or Alice Springs, as all these major cities have boarding schools that Aboriginal students from the Kimberley attend as well. All just as far from home.  

The settings allow us to contrast life in the bush and the city, and allow readers to really see the differences between the two as well.  


 What messages do you hope to convey to readers? 

There are so many layers to this short novella. Some that only Jaru readers will understand, some that First Nations readers will feel more strongly than others, some that we hope connect with everyone.  

We hope everyone reads and walks away with curiosity and an openness to learn more about the diverse lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  

This books explores the equity of remote community schooling with private boarding schools – who gets access and who does not. Who is allowed to be involved and who is restricted from accessing high quality high school education. This book also explores racism, bullying, culture, connection to Country, the importance of language, family and so much more.  

For teachers and librarians wanting to study either Black Cockatoo or Dirrarn in their classes we have differentiated, comprehensive author created education packs on our website: . We help guide you on the journey of learning with some really in depth and powerful education resources.  


Hakea-and-CarlCarl Merrison is a Jaru and Kija man from Halls Creek. Carl works with young Indigenous boys through the Clontarf Academy. Focusing in improving engagement with education and providing a positive role model. Carl was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2016.

Hakea Hustler is an experienced English teacher who has taught around Australia including in remote Aboriginal communities. Hakea is committed to Indigenous education with a particular focus on story as learning and empowerment. Together, Carl and Hakea’s debut novella Black Cockatoo was published by Magabala Books in 2018 and was shortlisted for the Readings Children’s Book of the Year, shortlisted in the CBCA Young Reader category, shortlisted for an ABIA award, selected as a feature text for the 2018 Summer Reading Challenge.

Visit Carl Merrison & Hakea Hustler’s website

Author: Carl Merrison & Hakea Hustler

Category: Children's, teenage & educational

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Magabala Books

ISBN: 9781922777027

RRP: $17.99

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