Kwame Mbalia is making history with Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky and Tristan Strong Destroys the World, so we thought we’d ask him a few questions about the importance of Black history in both his books and the books he loves to read.
RR.COM: The folktales and legends you give a nod to in the Tristan Strong novels feel both fresh and timeless. What makes them integral to understanding Black history?
MBALIA: Folktales are stories carried by a culture from region to region, from generation to generation. They can change and morph depending on who’s telling them and where they are. So what we have is a story that, in the telling, gives you information about where it originated from. Subtle differences give you the history of the tellers, sort of like a cultural bibliography. Understanding those differences along with the folktales gives you insight into the beliefs and values, and at the end, gives you empathy.
RR.COM: Boxing is obviously a big part of the Tristan Strong novels. Do you think the sport has special significance for the Black community?
MBALIA: First, Black people have always rallied around their sports and entertainment icons, people who have bucked the uneven playing field and triumphed in spite of it, beating oppression with its own rules. Boxing is no different, except it is in the fact that at stages in history, a Black fighter could stand toe to toe with someone he’d be expected to submit to and deliver what millions of souls have longed to deliver to oppressors. From Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali to Evander Holyfield, and even controversial figures like Tyson and Mayweather, Jr., at some point stood as powerful figureheads to literally beating the odds.
RR.COM: We love both Lady Night and Nina Simone. It’d be great to hear your thoughts about the role of Nina Simone in Black history and in your writing.
MBALIA: I love Nina. Again, she was someone who was extremely talented and yet extremely vocal in discussing oppression, not only about Black people but about Black women specifically. If there’s a song that describes Tristan Strong Destroys the World, it’s her song “Four Women” (representing Nana, Keelboat Annie, Mami Wata, and Lady Night). Four different types of Black women with different powers, different demeanors, and yet each and every one of them supports Tristan completely.
RR.COM: In the upcoming third book, Tristan Strong Keeps Punching, you cite many key events in Black American history that haven’t been taught widely in schools. Could you talk about a few of them?
MBALIA: History has a way of glossing over the horrific, and the history of the United States is no different. The major slave ports in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina. The denial of fair and equal housing loans by banks, a practice that can be seen still practiced in many areas today. The extrajudicial and extraordinary punishments inflicted on Black people outside and inside of law enforcement. But then again, recognition of harm inflicted would mean acknowledging guilt and damages done, and in the eyes of many is (wrongly) a sign of weakness. And America (again, wrongly) cannot be seen as weak.
RR.COM: Besides the Tristan Strong novels, what books should we be reading? Any literary gems you’d like to tell us about?
MBALIA: Anything by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose work I’ve relied on heavily. And you can always check out Black By Popular Demand, the weekly newsletter I run. It highlights several (but not all) new books that have been released by Black authors.