Shortly after Berlin-based artist Diana Ejaita illustrated her first New Yorker fill in for Mother’s Day 2019, she received a message from a publisher 4,000 miles away. Cecily Kaiser, director of RISE x Penguin Workshop in New York, was struck by the bold image of a Nigerian mother kneeling to face her child. Kaiser wanted to know if Ejaita would be interested in writing her own picture book.
“The wonderful Cecily contacted me and said, ‘Hey, I loved this image so much and would love to make a book with you. Would you be interested? It can be about anything you want,’ says Ejaita , author of Olu and Greta (RISE x Penguin Workshop, January 18), the story of cousins living 4000 miles apart – in Nigeria and Italy – who become BFFs without meeting IRL. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the heartfelt story of their long-distance friendship “a compelling bicontinental tale of kin, uniquely illustrated by an artist who lived through the experience.”
“I like to tell stories when they come mostly from my personal experience,” says Ejaita, who was born in Cremona, Italy, and has cousins from Lagos whom she first met in person in 2018. “There you can be more honest – you don’t have to make up too much.”
Kirkus spoke to Ejaita by Zoom from her home in Berlin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity†
What was the idea to animate? Olu and Greta†
Olu and Greta are very far away, but in the end they are so close, in so many things – in their desires, in the way they play. That was exactly the idea. [There’s this] diversity of cultures, yes, but in the end we are so similar despite being so far apart. That was my main thing, to show diversity and similarities at the same time. We can have different tastes, dress in different ways, speak different languages. But we all want to play, we all want to explore, we all want to communicate, we all want to dance, go into space with a spaceship. We all want butterfly wings, you know?
The book is set in Italy and Nigeria; your mother’s day New Yorker cover was located in Lagos. I can feel a lot of specificity without having traveled to the places you portray, without the same references you may have that other viewers may have in geography or fine arts for example. It feels accessible; I feel welcomed by your art.
That’s actually what I’m trying [for] in everything I do. Being lucky enough to have been born with two different cultures – to have traveled around and immigrated in different places – I’m really not stuck in one thing. Even if I want to tell a story specific to two countries, the idea is that [the art] talk to everyone. That’s why I want to talk about my personal stories again, because because we’re all the same, our stories are similar. Everybody [can] find something of her or him in it. Then it doesn’t feel Oh, that’s so exotic! I don’t want the exoticism† I’m not interested in this at all. We are all more than stereotypes and symbols.
Is there anything else you want readers to know? olu and Greta†
I didn’t tell the most amazing part of the story…
Here you go!
While we were making the book, I got pregnant, and the… [twin] My husband’s sister also got pregnant. So basically my child is born two months apart from his twin sister’s child. So they are really cousins, and [my child]-Okay, she wasn’t born in Milan, but she was born here in Berlin, and the cousin was born in Lagos – but there was all this mystique going on, like, Wow! There is some magic of the stars, the book comes out because they were born here and there! So it was very emotional, because the book was supposed to come out in September, and she was born at the end of September.
Wow! And they will come to know each other over this distance as cousins and hopefully eventually as friends.
Yes! And now we’re having these video calls with the kids, and I was like, wow, they are looking at each other through the video camera for the first time, and they are actually staring at each other† I’m like, How can this be? They stare at each other in a video. It’s so sweet. These generations are more used to this way of being together, even if they are not together.
Editor at large Megan Labrise hosts the podcast†