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Alan Durant

We interviewed Alan Durant, the fab author of Quill Soup! It was great to hear from him about the inspiration behind this beautiful book.

For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about Quill Soup?
I was introduced to the story of Quill Soup by a close friend in South Africa, an illustrator called Sam van Riet. It was her favourite story and she encouraged me to read it. I really ought to have known it already. As soon as I read it I loved it, but also it struck me how entirely pertinent it is for our age. On a parochial level this tale of a traveller seeking shelter and food and, initially at least, finding none, seems to echo Brexit and all of our strange anxieties about immigrants and, particularly, refugees, who are desperately in need of our assistance and hospitality. But this is a worldwide issue.
I received British Arts Council funding to set up a storytelling project in South Africa – a country awash with stories, but also having their own major issues with immigration. Because of this and also because I love the country, I decided to set my version of Stone Soup there. I also decided to make the characters African animals rather than humans as in the versions I’d read. I thought this would add to the fun and colour of the story, but also using animals in picture books helps lend universality, I think. The characters become archetypes not representing any specific culture or race.
Quill Soup

What inspired you to choose the ‘stone soup’ fable to retell?

The project I am working on in South Africa is looking at the link between oral and written storytelling. Many of the stories that have come out of the project have been based on traditional tales. It’s natural for storytellers to want to draw on the stories they have loved and grown up with – folk and fairy tales, myths and legends. We put our own stamp on them, fashion them anew in our own voice, uncover contemporary significance without changing the important meanings that have made them endure for so long.
Stone Soup is a wonderful tale. I wouldn’t think of rewriting it. What I have done is tweaked some aspects to suit my storytelling purpose. I’ve made Noko less of a trickster, for example. My version of the tale is more about a community coming to see the error of its ways than being fleeced – albeit deservedly – by a trickster.
Quill Soup is part of our One Story Many Voices series. How can reinterpreting stories help us understand other cultures?
Quill Soup is very African in flavour. It has African animals, it’s protagonist is based on a stock African type, Noko the trickster porcupine, there are specific cultural references such as The Valley of a Thousand Hills, the illustrations by the brilliant young South African artist Dale Blankenaar draw heavily on African tradition. But it is not a story about Africa. Its themes of welcoming outsiders, generosity and hospitality, are entirely universal. Rather than trying to help us understand another culture, I hope its resonances help us to reexamine and understand our own. There are many ways to tell a story and some may have specific cultural trappings, but it is the universality in the personality and situations of the characters and in the themes and meanings of the tale that make it endure. This is different from the intentions of my storytelling project where I am helping storytellers to create new stories specific to their culture and language – though even then there has to be universality of meaning.
Can you tell us about the message of the book?
The meaning of Quill Soup is about being hospitable and generous and welcoming outsiders into your community – and also about the joy and life enhancement that they may bring.
How do you feel about the illustrations?
I love the amazingly detailed and vividly colourful illustrations in this book. I know that children will have hours of fun studying them and reading all the extra stories their scenes contain. I could never have imagined how they would turn out. This is one of the great joys of being an author who can’t draw!
Which of the animals is your favourite and why?
I was once asked which is my favourite animal and I said “warthog”. It’s there in black and white in my book Game Boy. I like pangolins and meerkats a lot too, but in this particular tale my favourite animal has to be the porcupine Noko. I love the way he is portrayed without colour too to draw attention to his apparent “differentness”. And those quills are so cool!

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