Lolita Hernandez writes about the Detroit that she knows

Lolita Hernandez’s writing career started in earnest in a Detroit factory.

Before that, she had dabbled in poetry here and there, mainly writing about people from Trinidad and Tobago because that was the community she was enmeshed in growing up in Detroit and she didn’t feel there was much representation of that community.

She hadn’t written in some time when she get involved in a “left wing communist movement” and started working in a Cadillac plant as a way to organize the workers—“Who were already organized, by the way,” she laughs, “but you know how that goes.”

Still, working in the factory brought her back to poetry. Well, actually, it was a failed romance that brought her back into it—“You know how that goes, too!”

Hernandez started writing about the factory in poetry form. This was the mid-‘80s, and she recalls that Detroit was a hot poetry town at the time, with poets making their circuits of readings at venues around the city.

But she began to feel that she needed more space to tell her stories and so she started writing fiction. Her community of poets felt a bit jilted by her transition to short fiction—most of us know how that sort of thing goes. Regardless, she followed her gut, earned her MFA in fiction writing, and has been primarily focused on fiction ever since.

“I still love the tension in short fiction,” she says. “By definition, short stories are short. You’re creating a whole world in less space than a novel. I love the idea of creating this world and exploring the characters in fiction. Different things happen than can happen in poetry, and I still find I need that space.”

Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant was her first book, and it was about life in the factory. As she describes it, it was her observations from within the “city of the factory.”

“Factories then were whole cities full of real people,” she says. “You could do anything there. You could get married and divorced. You could buy or sell a house. You could do your Christmas shopping. You could do all of that within the walls of the factory because a lot of times people were working a lot of overtime and there wasn’t any time for much else outside the factory.”

If Autopsy of an Engine was about the city of the factory, her second book, Making Callaloo in Detroit, was about the city of Detroit.

“I was looking outside of the factory but it was still about working class people,” says Hernandez. “I don’t understand or hob nob with higher society types, so I don’t have those stories to tell. This book gave me the opportunity to talk more about the Caribbean community that I grew up with that was predominantly from small islands like St. Vincent, Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago. It was a relatively small cluster of people who lived their lives together and kind of insulated, but it felt really intimate to me growing up.”

These stories were inspired by the world around her, and the world around her happened to mostly be working class immigrants in Detroit.

One story called “Sometimes You Leap, Sometimes You Fall” was based on an article she had read in the Detroit News on Mother’s Day. It was about a woman who had been abandoned by her mother as a child and was raised to believe her mother was a prostitute. As an adult, she went looking for her mother in all the wrong places, becoming a prostitute herself. She was eventually arrested and hauled off to the jail in downtown Detroit. During the process of interrogation she fell out of the window of one of the upper floors to her death.

Another story was inspired by a comment she once heard from an undocumented man that told her he can’t dance until he is able to reunite with the children he had to leave behind. This story, “No Puedo Bailar” (“I can’t dance”), was about newly arrived undocumented immigrants primarily from Mexico living in Southwest Detroit, still to this day a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

She also has stories about cricket games on Belle Isle, love in the Dollar Store, and the ghost of a young man who was shot and killed in a Coney Island trying to tell a young woman that he loves her. As much of this book of stories is rooted in Detroit idiosyncrasies, she says it is also anchored by her three favorite foods—bakes (a Caribbean bread), boljol (a salted codfish dish), and callaloo, a popular Caribbean dish that originated in West Africa that she describes as the “national dish of Trinidad.” Callaloo is a greens dish that tends to be a whole mixture of various ingredients, and is itself a metaphor for a mixture or variety of things—hence the title of the book.

As a writer, Hernandez certainly gravitates towards stories about certain kinds of people and certain kinds of settings—she writes about the everyday lives of immigrants, laborers, factory workers, women, and people of color. But she doesn’t set out to make some sort of profound political statement with her stories: she simply writes what’s in front of her, and what’s in front of her tends to be immigrants, laborers, factory workers, women, and people of color.

“I don’t like being pigeonholed as the person who writes about factories or immigrants. There’s no telling who I’m going to write about,” she says. “I worked in a GM factory for many, many years. My family is an immigrant family. I write what’s in front of me, so I write about a variety of ethnicities that I’m trying to express the best I can. If I don’t know about it, I don’t write about it.”

She says all the issues and political statements a writer needs are right there already just by writing about the people she writes about; it just happens automatically.

“I don’t think there’s a story of mine you’ll read that you don’t understand how people are surviving in this country,” she says. “You don’t need to make a political statement; it’s just your life. I really think there’s a lot of creative survival going on here, whether we recognize it as that or not.”

She continued to explore the lives of some of the characters in her previous book of stories in her as-yet-unpublished novel, Felipe and Dhal in Search of the Garden of Love. Dhal is Southeast Asian and from the English-speaking Caribbean. Felipe is Latino and from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. “This is my story of love that never was able to fully realize itself as love,” she explains. “It’s the story of two immigrants in the city of Detroit and all the struggles they faced. It’s really about trying to find love in a new land while still having the old values.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
Note: After a lifetime spent in Detroit, Hernandez relocated to Las Vegas in 2018 to be closer to her two children.
I can tell you about a collaborative project I was involved in when I first got to Las Vegas. Erik, my son-in-law, is a printmaker at Test Site Projects, which he owns with other local artists. Test Site partnered with Nevada Humanities on a project called Seeing><Saying, where they paired writers with visual artists and then Erik produced a print portfolio of the collaborations. That was one of my few collaborations on that level. I’m a very lonely writer! It came out really beautiful and it was just at the time when I came out here, so I was able to write something short and poetic and get Detroit in there with the Cadillac plant and walking on the Riverwalk.

(2) How do you a start a project?
Any number of ways. Sometimes it’s just the title, sometimes it’s an incident. I don’t have a particular way to start or a thing that inspires the story. I generally tend to write the first paragraph or two and really bear down on the opening. I think the opening is incredibly important: it sets the pace and tone and I keep beating it up and going back to it until I get it, until I’m in it and I’m either crying or laughing. That opening makes me realize I’m committed and then I’ll keep pushing things out from there. The opening is a bit more of a road map in a way. It’s hard to get there, but if I don’t get there I don’t move forward so I have to get there.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I should think more about money but I always say GM allowed me to do this and now my pension allows me to not think about how I have to make money. Although I probably should. I just think I have to get that story out. It’s about the story for me, and being true to my characters and story. That’s what’s important to me, really. That’s all that matters.

(4) How do you define success?
I’m really not very aggressive about getting stuff out. I should be and I probably was more early on. I have a little piece coming out in a huge Detroit collection from M.L. Leibler. Every now and then I get something out. Once I get settled here I’ll look for an agent and try to shop some of my little Tantan [a character from her novel] diary stories out. I am a believer that your little babies need to get out in the world somewhere before being part of a collection.

(5) How do you fund your work?
Thank you very much Kresge! I’m independently moderately surviving. Also someone throws me a couple dollars here and there and there’s little odds and end here and there. I kind of like it that way. It doesn’t force you or put you in an uncomfortable position to adjust your work in order to please someone to make money. I’m also not willing to put myself in the position where I’m not writing what I want to write or putting things the way they have to be in order to satisfy me in order to satisfy someone else just to get a check. That’s not happening.