Soon after Berlin-based artist Diana Ejaita illustrated her first New Yorker cover for Mother’s Day 2019, she received a message from a publisher 4,000 miles away. Cecily Kaiser, director at RISE x Penguin Workshop in New York, was struck by the bold image of a Nigerian mother kneeling down in order to see eye to eye with her child. Kaiser wanted to know if Ejaita would be interested in authoring her own picture book.
“The wonderful Cecily contacted me and said, ‘Hey, I loved this image so much and would like to do a book with you. Would you be interested? It could be about anything you wish,’ ” says Ejaita, author of Olu and Greta (RISE x Penguin Workshop, Jan. 18), the story of cousins living 4,000 miles apart—in Nigeria and Italy—who become BFFs without meeting IRL. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the heartfelt tale of their long-distance friendship “a compelling bicontinental story of kinfolk, uniquely illustrated by an artist who’s lived 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 she met in person for the first time in 2018. “That is where you can be more honest—you don’t have to make up too much.”
Kirkus spoke with Ejaita by Zoom from her home in Berlin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the idea animating Olu and Greta?
Olu and Greta are very far away, but they are so close at the end, in so many things—in their wishes, 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 diversities and similarities at the same time. We might have different tastes, dress up different ways, talk different languages. But we all want to play, we all want to explore, we all want to communicate, we all want to dance, to go into space with a spaceship. We all want to have butterfly wings, you know?
The book is set in Italy and Nigeria; your Mother’s Day New Yorker cover was set in Lagos. I can sense a lot of specificity without having traveled to the places you depict, without all of the same references you may have, that other viewers may have in geography or fine art, for example. It feels accessible; I feel welcomed by your art.
Actually, that’s what I try [for] in everything I do. Because I have the luck of being born with two different cultures—to have traveled around and to have migrated in different places—I really am not stuck into one thing. Even if I want to tell a story specific to two countries, the idea is that [the art] talks to everyone else. That’s again why I want to talk about my personal stories, because, as we are all the same, our stories are similar. Everyone [can] find something of her or him inside of it. Then it doesn’t feel like, 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’d like readers to know about Olu and Greta?
I didn’t tell the most amazing part of the story—
When we were making the book, I got pregnant, and the [twin] sister of my husband also got pregnant. So basically, my child is born at two months’ difference with the child of his twin. So they’re really cousins, and [my child]—OK, she’s not born in Milan, but she’s born here in Berlin, and the cousin is born in Lagos—but there was all this mystique going on, like, Wow! There is some magic from the stars, the book is coming out because they are born here and there! So it was very emotional, because the book was supposed to come out in September, actually, and she was born end of September.
Wow! And they’ll get to know one another over this distance as cousins and, hopefully, eventually, as friends.
Yeah! And now we’re making these video calls with the kids, and I was like, wow, they’re looking at each other for the first time through the video camera, and they’re actually staring at each other. I’m like, How could this be? They’re staring at each other in a video. It’s so sweet. These generations are more used to this way of being together, despite not being together.