Writer reimagines science-fiction and fantasy, bringing lesser-known characters to life

Raleigh author Kwame Mbalia, who wrote “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.”
Raleigh author Kwame Mbalia, who wrote “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky.”

Updated Oct. 28: “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” by Kwame Mbalia debuted at No. 8 on The New York Times Best-Seller List in the Middle Grade Hardcover category.

Raleigh author Kwame Mbalia always wanted to write stories with characters like the ones he grew up reading, but “in a more modern and fantastical way.”

For Mbalia, that meant breathing life into Tristan Strong, a boy who goes on adventures — but is African American like himself.

“It’s a further reimagining of science-fiction and fantasy, with people I rarely got to see in it as a child,” said Mbalia, now 35.

That includes Anansi, a West African god who takes the shape of a spider, and John Henry, an African American folk hero.

“Those tales stuck with me,” he said.

Mbalia is a full-time pharmaceutical metrology technician, but has been writing since he was a child. And he has translated his writing side hustle into a two-book deal with six figures, according to Publishers Weekly.

His debut novel, “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” will be published Oct. 15 by Rick Riordan Presents, a new Disney-Hyperion imprint.

There has been buzz about the novel before its official release. Publishers Weekly featured the title as one of “The Most Anticipated Children’s and YA Books of Fall 2019.” It received a starred review from Kirkus.

The middle-grade novel is about Tristan, a seventh-grader mourning the loss of his best friend. He accidentally rips a hole in the MidPass, “a world where ancient African gods clash with gods of African-American legend, for a series of adventures,” according to the publisher.

The Rick Riordan Presents imprint comes from best-selling author Rick Riordan, known for his mega-popular Percy Jackson series. The books are “designed to elevate the diversity of mythologies from around the world,” according to a news release.

Riordan introduces the Tristan Strong character in the book, writing, “Tristan is tough but tender, smart but cautious, courageous but insecure. He is someone every kid will relate to, and you will immediately want to be his friend.”

Always a writer

Mbalia’s parents introduced him to Anansi’s tales. His late father, Ahmed Mbalia, was the former chair of the Africology Department at University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. His mother, Doreatha Mbalia, is a professor emeritus in the same department.

“Writing is in my blood,” Mbalia said in a phone interview with The News & Observer. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Howard University in 2005.

Mbalia and his wife, Mallory Mbalia, the director of educational engagement at UNC-TV, moved to Raleigh in 2006 after attending a hiring job fair for teachers. His wife, a former teacher and assistant principal for Wake County Public Schools, was looking for a job at the time. They immediately liked the diversity and the landscape.

“I didn’t realize there were so many writers in this area,” Mbalia said in an interview.

His wife and daughters, ages 5 to 11, keep the 5-foot-11 storyteller grounded. When the news of his book deal exploded on social media during dinner time, his phone started ringing constantly, causing him to burn the tacos he was preparing for his family.

“I left the ground beef on the stove too long … my girls weren’t happy,” he said.

A teaching tool

Some of the early acclaim surrounding “Tristan Strong” has trickled into classrooms, thanks to the American Library Association’s annual conference.

After the ALA event, Mbalia was invited to speak to a youth empowerment program of about 350 mostly African American boys organized by the Cleveland Public Library in Ohio.

“It’s hard to get boys to read but I look forward to introducing this book to our community,” said Erica Marks, library’s youth and outreach program manager.

“It involves people of color,” she said. “It has action…Seeing someone of color on the book cover makes a difference.”

Kristen Ziller, a library media specialist at Pine Hollow Middle School in Raleigh and co-chair of the Community Reads program, helped select “Tristan Strong” as this year’s title. Students, parents and staff are encouraged to read and take part in discussions and activities related to the book.

Mbalia is expected to visit the year-round school in 2020.

Ziller said students want to read more fantasy fiction. “They learn about mythology in sixth grade,” Ziller said. “They crave mythology books.”

Michael Hutchinson, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Pine Hollow, has already jumped into the story. He also is co-chair of Community Reads.

“I was immediately engaged and wanted to know more about Tristan Strong and his family,” he said. “He’s coming from a world that is not my world. He’s from big city, he lives in Chicago. His father and grandfather were boxers. That’s not from my experience but I was very interested because he’s different. ... It’s a window into another world.”

Second book

On a recent Saturday morning, Mbalia sits in a Raleigh Panera for an interview on his book and how he manages his secondary career as a writer. He has adjusted his work schedule to a four-day work week to accommodate his book tour and readings.

He juggles his writing between work and household chores, acknowledging the schedule can be tough.

“I write after the children have gone to bed between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m.,” he said. “I’m racing against exhaustion. I also get up super early on Saturday mornings and write three or four hours.”

He already is working on his second book in the series. For Mbalia, it’s hard to quiet all the noise from the first book, to craft the next story. But like the first, it will delve into lesser-known characters in the fantasy genre.

“This time, I’m looking at the female folk heroes and Gods,” he said. “It’s not just men and everyone else. This is a shared society.”

Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer. Reach her at bridgettelacy@att.net


Kwame Mbalia will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Oct. 16, at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, in North Hills.

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