Interview with Joe White: ‘Surviving my past life has made me more fearless’

Interview with Joe White: ‘Surviving my past life has made me more fearless’

Joe White
Words by Christine Lan
In partnership with Joe White

The power and importance of storytelling is epitomised by Joe White (aka Tiluhun Hailu). When the Ethiopian-Australian comedian conveys a story, the audience experiences a myriad of emotions.

Through stories that traverse terrains of suffering and heartache to transcendence and joy, Joe’s unique experiences and sharp wit have seen him become one of Australia’s most exciting comedians. Comparisons to Trevor Noah have been made and are indeed apt.

“Trevor Noah is a huge influence,” he enthuses. “I just love how he tells his African stories, but from a funny perspective. I guess that’s my style. You can bring your grandma to it and it’ll be safe. I perform as if my mum’s in the crowd. If she doesn’t approve, then I won’t do it.”

Keep up with Melbourne’s latest comedy news, reviews and interviews here.

His Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Ethiopian and Still Not Hungry, will provide some insight into the challenges faced by his family’s journey from Ethiopia and Sudan to Australia.

“I think living the life that I lived from where I’ve come from, it’s definitely made me more appreciative of the life that I have here,” Joe reflects. “Surviving my past life has made me more fearless. I use comedy to share our family story, mainly my mum’s story. It makes her happy because she knows she didn’t suffer in silence. The worst kind of suffering is when you go through something terrible and you don’t talk about it.”

Joe’s parents fled Ethiopia to Sudan, where Joe was born. His father Mulu left the family due to alcoholism, leaving his mother Yezina to take care of six children while finding a way to provide for them. Joe was 11 when he and his siblings with his mother arrived in Perth as refugees. He reflects on how difficult life was in Khartoum, Sudan, and playing security guard for his sisters.

“Life was just pretty horrendous there,” Joe relates. “We became homeless for almost two years. By day we’d go to a church in the middle of the capital city because mum’s very religious – Ethiopian Orthodox. We’d go inside the church and we would pray and by night they’d kick every homeless person out of the church, so you’ve got this single mum with six kids sleeping outside the church and now she has to play security guard, not just with the elements, but people try to kidnap and child traffic…. There were some nights where we would wake up in the middle of the night; the car drove by too close or someone’s trying to kidnap my sister and she’s screaming. The only security mum could come up with was using a rope and tying three kids to her left and the other three to her right and tying us to her torso. At night when someone tried to take us, this rope is attached to everyone, so we’d all wake up. Luckily, the rope saved us from when mum fell asleep because she couldn’t stay awake all night.

“Some good Samaritans would just give us food here and there and when they couldn’t, we would just go through bins to find food while mum is out and about trying to sell tea in the markets,” says Joe. “She would get a little kettle and she’ll heat it up and sell tea with sugar. Whoever wants some, she’ll give them tea and they will give her whatever they have if they had any. Some didn’t, but mum didn’t care – if someone sat down, she would give it to them anyway. She’s just so kind.”

Joe’s admiration for his mother is evident and profound. After enduring many hardships in Sudan, it was a different form of painful experience in Australia – a breakup with his fiancé – that saw Joe leave his job as a banker in search of meaning. His older brother spoke with him about personal development to counter the painful thoughts in his head. “I got so hooked,” says Joe. “I was doing about eight hours a day listening to personal development. I was just trying to let go of 29 years of unconsciously letting information in my head, so now I’m just conscious of what I let into my head and I just want a new perspective. I want to explore and live a full life, be the best version of myself and leave a legacy. I realised I wasn’t happy being in a bank. I didn’t know what to do, but I just needed to find it. I was just by myself in my own world of finding my purpose in this life.”


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While in pursuit of finding purpose in his life, Joe’s twin sister Elsa suggested that he visit the psychic with whom she had experienced a bewildering experience. “I just went because I was at that stage of my life where I’m open to anything, you know, when you’re desperate,” he laughs. “And the psychic goes to me, you’re supposed to be on stage and entertaining people. As I was leaving, I realised that a month before I saw her, I actually wrote a page of stand-up with my cousin.

“The first time I did it, I got three applause breaks and I almost had a heart attack before going on stage,” says Joe, “but I shared stories about my family – my perspective on coming from Africa to here and helping mum with things in Australia that a lot of white Australians or people who grew up here don’t need to help their parents with – and they found it hilarious. The feeling I got from creating something and getting that good response and they were all happy for the period that I had them – I left that stage and I was driving home and I was in tears. I found my purpose. It was a very emotional night for me and I haven’t stopped since then and that was seven or eight years ago.”

Winner of numerous awards including the Perth Fringe World Festival Best Comedy Weekly Award and The West Australian Comedy Choice Award, Joe has supported international comedians Max Amini and Maz Jobrani. His energy is infectious, and the passion that he possesses as an ambassador for the Katina Woodruff Children’s Foundation – which helps refugee children overcome trauma – is palpable. Having already donated thousands of dollars to various not-for-profit organisations, Joe is adamant that his love for comedy will always align with his heart for helping vulnerable children. “It’s a cause that’s close to my heart,” he says. “I do it all in the name of my mum. A struggling single mum with six kids did it tough raising us and I saw the people who gave her help and that look on her face changed every time someone helped. Now I’m in a position to return that, but in her honour, so that keeps me going.”

Joe White is performing Ethiopian & Still Not Hungry (The Finale) from April 12 – 24 as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Book tickets here and follow him on Instagram and Facebook.