Storyteller in Chief: Bilal Hafda on the power of words

For those who are yet to cross paths with Bilal, you might soon because his presence in Western Sydney and beyond is only going to increase. I first met Bilal when he was performing as a part of Night Sky at Bankstown Arts Centre in early 2017. He is eloquent with words, deliberate in his delivery and an all-round great human being doing youth work.

The Sydney Story Factory is opening up an office in Western Sydney and the Bankstown Poetry Slam regular is going to be the Storyteller in Chief. We took some time out to have a chat about his new role, turning passions into careers and the power of storytelling.

What happens when you turned your passion into a career?

For me it was never my intention. What I always had in my mind from the moment I was in year 8, was that I was going to be a high school English and History teacher. I loved English, I loved history and I had fantastic teachers when I was in high school. So what I did when I finished high school, was go straight into university. I did my bachelor of arts with a, pathway to teaching secondary  and then I did Masters of Teaching. I did my pracs, loved teaching and that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

I had been attending the poetry slam month to month and was getting better as a performer, creating my own art and felt empowered by that ability to go – I have things that I want to say and people are willing to listen and I can share  in a space where people are willing to listen. That is something that I wanted to give to my students.

I started doing a lot of youth arts work out of BYDS in schools. I was doing the RESPECT program which is around domestic violence, I was doing writing and arts based  programs in Western Sydney schools and it only happened because Tim Carroll, the director of BYDS offered me the opportunity because he saw me at the slams a lot.

At first I thought it would give me teaching experience, but when I started doing it, I just kept thinking that every workshop I was running and program I was a part of, it was the kind of thing I wish I had when I was at school. I invested more and more time into it. I kept getting offered casual shifts and was turning them down because I was working for BYDS or the Story Factory. I realised I didn’t want the classroom work. Opportunities kept presenting themselves and it just kind of happened.

I had this moment of realisation a week ago as I was playing with hypotheticals in my head. If tomorrow I had to stop everything and become a classroom teacher 5 days a week, same school and same classes, how would I feel about that? I thought absolutely not and it was nothing against the teaching profession, but I have seen an alternative side. I don’t want to just do teaching in a classroom.

Why do you create? Why storytelling? 

Image courtesy of Bilal.

That’s such a big question. The ability to tell a story well is so applicable to some many things in our lives. Our ability to understand who we are is very closely tied in with our ability to tell a story about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we are going. For young people and students, specifically the kind of young people I have worked with, particular cultures and backgrounds will have stories told about them by  people who aren’t from their cultures, or from their backgrounds. That don’t have the same experiences as them.That ability, and opportunity to tell their story is taken away from them.

Growing up in Western Sydney, I thought that I couldn’t stand up and say ‘hey, this is who I am, not what the media is saying I am. I can say it.’ In growing my  ability to perform, I started to feel like I could say that, and well.  . I noticed that my students wanted the same thing. I felt that I had the responsibility and the ability to give them that.

On accepting compliments and being self critical.

I am very self critical. I think it is a recent addition to my personality but I struggle a lot taking compliments and just saying thank you. I try my hardest  to do the very best work that I can. We can all  make big mistakes and we don’t always do our best work, but I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have been given and I try to make the most of them.

What are you most looking forward to with your new role with Sydney Story Factory – Parramatta?

My new role is Storyteller in Chief. The thing that I am looking forward to the most is really delving into the communities that we work with and providing the things that they need with the resources that we have. Being in these spaces and just listening is a big part of being able to do creative work and community work. Saying ‘you are the experts on who you are and what you need so tell us what you need and how we can help you.’ I look forward to committing to long term relationships and seeing how that grows over time.

What do you think will be most challenging?

To a large extent the schools and organisations that we need to work with are going to be the most difficult to get in contact with. Sometimes administration and lines of communication get crossed. The best work we have ever done is when we have one person in the school who is the champion of the cause of creative writing. Finding those people is really important, but it is challenging. It is about finding people who trust us. When you look at the Sydney Story Factory, it is an organisation that has existed in Redfern for a long time, but not in Western Sydney, although we’ve worked with plenty of students from those areas.. For myself, almost all the creative writing work I have done has been in ws. I have been in the same house in Bankstown since I was born and I think one of the challenges will be explaining and proving  that I am not that outside organisation who doesn’t know anything about you, because those kinds of orgs and people exist, but that’s not me. That is not the work I want to do or the reason I want to do it. The challenge will be getting rid of that stigma, if it exists. I genuinely want the best for the community I am a part of.

What support is needed?

Access to funding for grassroots organisations who do fantastic work. Usually government grants go to big organisations who can reach the largest amount of people – so it goes for quantity not quality. I think about the Bankstown Poetry Slam who have amazing impact.

(We then went on a tangent and spoke about the need for sustainable business models and the need to go beyond grants to sustain ourselves. We spoke about organisations that have internal development teams dedicated to fundraising and those a the grassroots that don’t.  That’s right, this interview did just turn into one of our catch ups). It really did, and it was fantastic!

What is your number one tip for someone hesitant to put pen to paper?

Just try it. Don’t judge yourself. I know that is counter intuitive, the first thing we do is judge ourselves when we create. But we need to learn to quieten that voice. If you are having trouble with it, get a big piece of A3 paper and draw some circles on it. Whatever you write inside those circles that’s what you are going to keep and that’s what you think is important. So where you start writing is  in the blank spaces, where nobody’s watching. Make that blank space your art, and then invite people in.  The only person who stops you from writing is you.

Quick responses with Bilal:

What is the best advice you have ever received? Be that about writing or your career or as a person.

That is so tough. Ok. My first instinct is to go with… when someone at BYDS saw I was struggling. What I am doing with my work is completely new. I haven’t tried it before and to an extent others haven’t tried it before either, especially in regards to opening the Sydney Story Factory in Western Sydney. The advice was to remember that “ I am completely self taught and whenever something is going wrong I just remind myself that I am self taught”. This is something I am trying for the first time and you need to be easy on yourself sometimes.

What is your recommended read?

My students are about to release  a bunch of novellas on the 10 December. We have been working on them for the past 12 months every single Sunday at  the Bankstown Arts Centre. We are going to launch their books at the future premises  of the  Sydney Story Factory in Parramatta (a bit of a sneak-peak of our space). I have been reading and rereading the drafts for the past month and they are really great novellas. When they come out, whether you are from Western Sydney or not, everyone needs to read them. It is fantastic writing, all by young people who put their heart and soul into it.

When does the new space launch?

Come to 88 George Street on the 10 December. it is going to be pre-fit out, so before we do any renovations. We can paint on the walls and put whatever we want in the space. Students will do readings and hopefully we will have other writers there celebrating all the hard work.

Potentially the most important question you will answer today, what is your go to Karaoke song and why?

Eye of the Tiger because why not? Or probably any type of 90s rap. I could nail that. I was big on Rocky  and 80s action movie  montages. Or lay on some rap and I think I’d do rather well.


This interview was conducted by Natalie Wadwell over the phone with Bilal Hafda. I’d like to thank him for his generous responses and share my general appreciation for the work he does. 


This article was first published on State of the Arts Media on November 17, 2017. 

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