After reading Last Gate of the Emperor, I was pleased to interview co-authors Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen. You may already know Kwame Mbalia from his Tristan Strong series. Prince Joel Makonnen is the great-grandson of the last Ethiopian monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie. We chatted about writing a good fantasy story, Ethiopian culture, creating an engaging, accessible story, and their partnership as co-authors. This is such a fantastic, enlightening interview and Kwame’s responses (especially) are entertaining to read.
Scholastic is giving away a copy of Last Gate of the Emperor to a US-based reader. Please see the end of this post for more information.
Hi Kwame and Joel! It’s a pleasure to chat with you both about Last Gate of the Emperor. I was deeply moved by this story, but more so after reading Joel’s afterword. I’m so curious how this collaboration happened. Prince Joel, how did you decide that Kwame was the right writer to work with on this story? And Kwame, what drew you to this story?
PJM: With Last Gate of the Emperor, the goal was really to tell my story of how it was growing up as a young prince in exile, away from my people and my home country. Basically, I wanted to bring what I summed up in my afterword to life in a book. However, I wanted it to be accessible for young readers and that’s why the middle grade format appealed to me.With Last Gate of the Emperor, the goal was really to tell my story of how it was growing up as a young prince in exile, away from my people and my home country. – @HIHPrinceYoel Click To Tweet
This is my debut as an author, so I was introduced to Kwame about a potential collaboration. We hit it off immediately and I was so impressed that he knew about Ethiopia, its history, and even about Emperor Haile Selassie, my great-grandfather. Kwame told me that when he was growing up his parents made it a point to have him read books about Africa so that he’d always feel that connection with the continent. So, Kwame is not only knowledgeable, but he really cares about Africa. Plus, he was just coming off his first volume of the Tristan Strong series, and I absolutely loved his book, so I knew he was the perfect partner to work with.
KM: I love sci-fi. I’ve imagined the future probably more times than I can count. And, like everything I write, this story is infused with elements of the African diaspora. You’d have to fight me to keep me away from it.
So, how did the collaboration actually work? What was the process?
KM: Like every good partnership, it started with a common goal, and that was presenting a (not the only, but one of many) possible future in which the African diaspora thrived in unison. Joel and I talked (over sushi, as all great partnerships start) and the story seed blossomed.
PJM: I believe fate brought us together. Kwame and I are like a match made in Axumite heaven. We both share tremendous passion for telling powerful stories about Africa and the Diaspora, so this book was a pure labor of love. The process couldn’t have been more seamless as we were essentially on the same page all along. I brought all of the rich Ethiopian history, culture and tradition and the coming-of-age aspect of a young boy embarking on a journey of self-discovery to distant kingdoms, and Kwame had all the fun jokes, battle royale video game and technology-laden world-building skills, which all combined into this epic thrill of a high-flying Afrofuturist adventure which we called Last Gate of the Emperor!
We wrote this book with the haste of someone who doesn’t want to lose his train of thought because the ideas just came pouring in, so the creative process was actually very energizing.
This Afro-futuristic sci-fi and the worlds of Axum and Addis Prime reminded me of the fictional Wakanda, where the tech society designed and inhabited by Africans is concerned. Kwame, what inspired your world building, from the floating markets to the class holovids and robots cleaning?
KM: I think all sci-fi extrapolates solutions to current problems into the future, imagining how they could be solved if there were no (or different) limitations. The class holovids (eerily similar to our pandemic-mandated virtual classrooms) were one answer to the problem of bringing together students from across a humongous city like Addis Prime.
Also, floating markets are just cool.I think all sci-fi extrapolates solutions to current problems into the future, imagining how they could be solved if there were no (or different) limitations. – @KSekouM Click To Tweet
Yared is quick-witted, braggadocious, and always down for an adventure. Yet, we also see other sides to his character — his worries about his uncle Moti and his friendship with the Ibis, for example. Why was it important to you both to create a dynamic, well-rounded character in Yared?
KM: Readers bond with characters. There is an implicit trust granted to characters in which readers say, “Okay, I will travel with you through this story because I relate/empathize/believe in you.” Focusing on the characters means we, as authors, are also focusing on the readers.
PJM: Before meeting Kwame I had already thought up the general idea for the protagonist, Yared, and his story arc, and I imbued him with many of my own characteristics and personality. He’s a young Ethiopian boy with difficult circumstances growing up, he feels out of place because he’s had to move to different homes and bounce around schools. At times he’s distracted, and his daredevil antics get him in trouble in school. But indeed, he also has a more sensitive side, he cares about family and friendship – even though he doesn’t have much of either. And he does have some useful skills, he’s really good at video games, he’s a polyglot (I speak five languages, and I’ve found that always very helpful in life!) who can maneuver tough situations with his quick wit.
We wanted him to be well-rounded so that he would feel real to young readers and they could relate to him. Nobody is perfect, but beneath all the layers, we all have our vulnerabilities, our hopes and fears, and people and things we truly care about. I think we all feel like Yared at times, or know someone who is like him, and we understand. And to quote author Gordon Korman from a recent panel we sat on together, “imperfect people can accomplish extraordinary things!”
I have to say: Besa was my favorite piece of technology. I loved her role as Yared’s friend and guardian. It felt like a brilliant way to include wildlife in this futuristic Ethiopia. What inspired this robotic lioness? Did you both have any favorite technologies in the story?
KM: First of all, you can’t call Besa a piece of technology to her face. She’s sensitive.
Second, Yared needed someone to journey with him, not only through the adventure in Last Gate of the Emperor, but through the early stages of his life. Someone who bounced from new home to new home along with him. Besa is more than a friend–she’s family.
PJM: Besa is everything! And she’s Kwame’s and my favorite “character.” But please don’t tell her she’s a piece of technology. She’s a bionic being but she has feelings! In Ethiopia, the lion has historically been a national symbol for our country and the Lion of Judah used to be embroidered on our national flag during the imperial days – a symbol of the dynastic monarchy which ruled Ethiopia for centuries.
(Editors Note: I stand corrected, Besa. You are not a piece of tech.)
We’ve always had a large number of lions in the wild and just recently a DNA study showed that Ethiopia possesses a species that is genetically distinct from any other in the world. Unfortunately, the lion population in Ethiopia, as well as in Africa more broadly, is declining at alarming rates which may soon become irreversible. So, I take this opportunity to raise awareness about this dire issue and the need for conservation efforts to be implemented immediately. I cannot imagine a world where this majestic creature is extinct, so if you feel that way too, I urge you to support wildlife conservation efforts as I do; including organizations such as LionAid, and others (e.g., Big Cats Initiative, Lion Guardians).Readers bond with characters. There is an implicit trust granted to characters in which readers say, “Okay, I will travel with you through this story because I relate/empathize/believe in you.” Focusing on the characters means we, as… Click To Tweet
A central theme in this story is finding home and belonging, especially for Yared. Prince Joel, as the great-grandson of the last Emperor of Ethiopia, you and Yared share similar exile experiences. Why was it important for you to share this story?
PJM: For me, there are two main reasons. First, for my own posterity, I wanted to pass down my country’s history and my family’s legacy. I am the scion of a long, storied dynasty going back three millennia. It occurs to me that if this legacy has lasted this long, it’s because people in each generation preceding me stood up and made it a point to capture the history and pass it down. This is me doing my part. And I hope the next generation will pick up the mantle and carry it forward.
The second reason is that I believe my story will speak to all young people, regardless of their background. For all children who feel out of place, I’m here to say: you will find your way. Even I, as a prince, have struggled with finding my place in the world. And as unique as my story may seem, it’s the same process for everyone. Even though my circumstances were not perfect growing up –we were in exile having left everything behind and having to start a new life far from home — I had to accept this reality and strive to become the best version of myself within that set of facts. And I want kids to know that their circumstances don’t define them entirely; you must look beyond them and understand that you have everything you need to achieve your dreams.
Your true self is not just what your circumstances say you are, it is also who you decide to be. I hope this story will inspire young people to seek their true core and embrace it. Your story is your superpower! And it will always be with you. Use it to do good in the world.Your true self is not just what your circumstances say you are, it is also who you decide to be. I hope this story will inspire young people to seek their true core and embrace it. Your story is your superpower! Click To Tweet
I’m not a big sci-fi/fantasy reader, so I’m always a bit nervous about entering a new world. This story was a rollercoaster! Yared’s beliefs about himself and his world are repeatedly deconstructed and refined. Kwame, as an acclaimed fantasy writer, what would you say are the crucial ingredients for an immersive experience?
KM: Specificity. A lot of times we try to go expansive, including as much of the world as possible, when what is required is depth and relatability. Yes, Addis Prime is a big city, with millions of inhabitants, but the buna-men on the corner distributing coffee, the hover-buses traveling to the different districts, and the underground video game taking place outside–all of these enhance the expansive world without overwhelming the reader.
I loved the Ethiopian culture in this book — especially the food, from the aromatic coffee to the sambusas. Prince Joel, what are some of your favorite aspects of Ethiopian culture, both in the book or not?
PJM: Buna and Sambusa! That’s coffee and sambusa, it’s my favorite snack! What I really love about our Ethiopian culture is our deep tradition of celebrating holidays such as Easter, Christmas, and Epiphany that falls on Jan 19. During Easter and Christmas and similar holidays we make it a point to get together, dress up in our traditional Ethiopian clothes, Bahil lebs, which is a white suit with a light white scarf and we spend the whole day eating delicious Ethiopian food such as doro wat.
What’s special in Ethiopia is that Epiphany is our biggest religious holiday. We have these big elaborate processions in the street, people beat drums, play trumpets, sing charming religious songs and it culminates with a mass “baptism” with people gathering around pools in churches and we all jump in — which is meant to be a sort of reenactment of the baptism scene in the river Jordan in the Bible. For churches that don’t have a pool, the priests will come out with large amounts of holy water to spread onto the congregation. The celebration of Epiphany in Ethiopia is a wonder to behold.
Yared may be visiting a planet we know, based on the book’s ending. Does this mean we can hope for a sequel?
PJM: Absolutely. Kwame and I have more in store for Yared and Besa. So be on the lookout for their next adventure in a yet-to-be-titled Book 2. Meantime, make sure to get yourself a copy of Last Gate of the Emperor and take a deep dive into this space-faring adventure! With the promise of more to come soon.
Otherwise, what are you both currently working on/excited to share about?
KM: Okay yes, here’s where we tell you that we are working on a sequel. You can’t get rid of Yared the Gr8 that easily.
PJM: On my end, apart from being a newly-minted author, I’m also a filmmaker. My wife Ariana and I have launched our own media and entertainment company, Old World//New World, to tell powerful stories about Africa and its Diaspora through film, TV, and books. Currently, we are developing a feature biopic film centered on Emperor Haile Selassie and a historical drama TV series about the Ethiopian monarchy. You can follow us on Instagram at @oldworldnewworld and by signing up to our newsletter for updates via the website.
Learn more about the Ethiopian lore behind this story here. You can catch the virtual tour for Last Gate of the Emperor via the details below.
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About Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen
Kwame is a husband, father, writer, a New York Times bestselling author, and a former pharmaceutical metrologist in that order. His debut middle-grade novel, TRISTAN STRONG PUNCHES A HOLE IN THE SKY was awarded a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, and it—along with the sequels TRISTAN STRONG DESTROYS THE WORLD and the untitled third book—is published by Rick Riordan Presents/Disney-Hyperion. He is the co-author of LAST GATE OF THE EMPEROR with Prince Joel Makonnen, from Scholastic Books. A Howard University graduate and a Midwesterner now in North Carolina, he survives on Dad jokes and Cheezits.
PRINCE JOEL MAKONNEN is the great-grandson of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia. He is an attorney and the co-founder of Old World/New World, a media and entertainment company focused on telling powerful African stories that inspire global audiences through film, TV and books. He lives with his wife, Ariana, in Los Angeles.
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I can’t wait to be able to hand this to kids!