Inspired by Ethiopia’s history and cultural traditions, Last Gate of the Emperor is an Afrofuturist adventure centered around the main character of Yared Heywat. Living in Addis Prime, a downtrodden city with rundown tech, Heywat is the star of an underground augmented reality game. When his real name gets one out day, Heywat finds himself the target of an attack and he soon learns that he has a connection to a galactic war. Last Gate of the Emperor was written by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen; wanting to learn more about them, I was able to interview these authors about their book, their backgrounds, and how Ethiopia inspired them.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were stories you two loved experiencing? Are there any you two still enjoy revisiting?
Kwame Mbalia: I was and am a big fan of the bildungsroman story, the idea of a complete coming of age of a main character. This could be physical, in terms of growth and maturation, or psychological in how the character is forced to comprehend the world they’re rapidly becoming exposed to. Wrap all that up in a space adventure or in a kingdom torn apart by magic and you have my full attention.
Prince Joel Makonnen: The stories that I loved were those told by my family that recounted Ethiopian history and the role of my family members within that history. I always loved revisiting them, especially with my grandfather. These stories informed my knowledge and respect for my country, my family’s legacy and these stories motivated me to share them with others.
Yanes: My other publications about African content center on the countries of South Africa, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. So, I don’t know as much about Ethiopia as I would like. With that said, what are some Ethiopian novels or films you two enjoy?
KM: My most recent read was Addis Ababa Noir, an anthology edited by Maaza Mengiste, with stories centered around the bustling Ethiopian city. I’m a big noir fan, and seeing an iconic city like Addis Ababa used as a central setting pushed my love of the genre to a new level.
PJM: One of my favorite films is Difret, made by Ethiopian filmmaker Mehret Mandefro and
Executive Produced by Angelina Jolie, the film is inspired by a true story and there are many layers of storytelling. I like this film because Ethiopian women have played an integral role in the history of Ethiopia, they have always been there fighting just as much as men and this film encapsulates the spirit of Ethiopian women in a way that many films have not.
Yanes: Last Gate of the Emperor is set in Ethiopia, a nation with a history that goes back thousands of years. While doing research for this novel, were there elements of Ethiopia’s history and culture that surprised you two the most?
KM: I wouldn’t say surprised, since everything is new when learning about a culture, but I was enthusiastically overjoyed to learn about the ritual surrounding coffee drinking.
PJM: The research I needed to do was in my heart and in my memory because these are stories that I grew up with. What surprised me, is how little people in the west, especially in America know about Ethiopian legacy. As you said, with such a long history going back thousands of years, I’m surprised by how more people are familiar with the Roman Empire, British monarchy and the Greeks. As I learn more about my country, I’m also always fascinated by how many incredible feats we have achieved as a nation.
Yanes: Last Gate of the Emperor is described as an Afrofuturist adventure. How do you two describe this genre?
KM: To me, Afrofuturism is the extrapolation of the culture of the African diaspora from the present into the future, which sometimes might require a bold re-imagination of the past. We have to rebuild the trajectory of that extrapolation from fragments, filling in the gaps with our own creativity, and follow it forward to what we think the culture might evolve into. One of the reasons I love sci-fi is how we have to do that anyway, creating a future trajectory for ourselves, and doing that through an Afrofuturist lens asks creators to be visionary explorers. This is something we–as a people who’ve habitually looked towards the future as an escape from the horrors of the past–are used to doing.
PJM: My description is pretty simple; its imagining Africa in the future with no limits to what that can be. Until fairly recently, ‘Afrofuturism’ has been an untapped genre. I wanted to contribute to it, because I want my family’s legacy and history to continue into the future.
Yanes: Yared Heywat is a great character. When did you Yared come alive for you two?
KM: I don’t know about you but I get roasted by 12yo gamers on Apex Legends and Call of Duty and Fortnite all the time. It made sense to take a gamer with a bedtime, add in a little bit of swagger and an appreciation of sambusas and boom: Yared the Gr8 was born.
PJM: From the beginning! I wanted to write a story to share my experience growing up as a prince who was in exile, separated from his home country. Yared was our starting point for the whole story and my experience was the starting point from which to build his character, who is out of place, and has to reconnect with his roots in order to be whole. I think Yared’s story definitely jumped off the page once Kwame developed the journey that Yared could embark on, that encompasses technology and gaming, whilst being rooted in the essence of the story that all youth can identify with; coming of age and finding themselves.
I really hope that after reading the book, kids will be encouraged to go on their own journey of self-discovery and embrace their own story.
Yanes: What are the long-term goals for Last Gate of the Emperor? Is it seen as just a novel series or is there hope of adapting it into video games or movies?
KM: I hope. I always hope.
Yanes: When people finish reading Last Gate of the Emperor, what do you two hope they take from this story?
KM: I hope they get the same sense of adventure as they might when reading Treasure Island or books of that nature. I hope they walk with a hunger for more African diaspora stories. Most of all, I hope they walk away and hand the book to a friend.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you two working on that people can look forward to?
KM: Yared’s adventures aren’t over yet. There’s a whole galaxy to explore, which means a whole new leaderboard to climb.
PJM: Kwame and I are working on more adventures for Yared and Besa so stay tuned for book 2! From my part, together with my wife Ariana, we just launched Old World // New World, a media & entertainment company dedicated to telling powerful Black stories that inspire global audiences through film, TV and books. Next for us will be a feature film and TV series! You can follow us on Instagram at @oldworldnewworld and by signing up to our newsletter for updates via the website www.ownw.co