Preserving culture

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Author Lolita Hernandez says everything she's ever written has been "about Detroit, one way or the other."

Hernandez has lived most of her life in the city and still resides on the lower east side, where she grew up.

"I've just been around for such a long time and have seen so many different things and I've intersected with so many different groups and so many different activities," she says. "To tell a story, for me, there's no place else I have to go to pick out my characters."

Hernandez will read from her latest book, the short story collection "Making Callaloo In Detroit," Thursday at the William P. Faust Public Library of Westland. The collection, named a 2015 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan, is heavily inspired by Hernandez's childhood growing up among a Detroit enclave of Caribbean islanders. Hernandez's parents hailed from Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, and she says they and their neighbors practiced an "intense preservation of culture."

"My parents were probably the most loyal to preserve the food, to preserve the stories, to preserve the language, to preserve the sense of Trinidad and Tobago," she says. "I think within that there's a certain magic for someone who was not born there to hear these things which are completely different from life in Detroit. You were almost transported."

Food was particularly important when Hernandez was growing up, as she says her parents had a story to tell about every food they introduced her to. Fittingly, three tales related to Caribbean dishes — "Making Callaloo," "Making Buljol" and "Making Bake" — act as the "anchor" stories in Hernandez's new book. The collection's title is inspired by the Caribbean dish callaloo, made from the leaves of the dasheen (or taro) bush and a variety of ingredients that may include okra, coconut milk or salt pork.

"Back when I was growing up, it wasn't easy to get dasheen bush in Detroit and you can't get it now, as far as I know," Hernandez says. "But it's also a metaphor for a mixture of things, so that's how the collection achieved its name."

Although tales of Caribbean islanders in Detroit make up the majority of the stories in Hernandez's book, other kinds of immigrants in the city come into play. One story focuses on Mexican migrant workers. Another follows the bond between an Italian woman, a German woman and a woman from the American South who have all recently arrived in Detroit. Hernandez says the concept of diaspora "cries out" from the book.

"The whole thing is about some kind of people moving from one place to another and landing here," she says. "How do you protect your culture? How do you assimilate? How do you become Detroiters or not?"

Hernandez's previous book, the 2004 short story collection "Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories From the Cadillac Plant," was heavily inspired by her 33 years working for General Motors. Although Hernandez says she wrote many poems while working the assembly line at the Cadillac Clark Street plant, she never looked at writing as a profession until she retired in 2006. In addition to publishing works, she is now also a creative writing lecturer at the University of Michigan Residential College.

"I think I just write because I have to write," she says. "I never considered myself a writer. It's only recently that I began to consider myself a writer."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer

Lolita Hernandez

7 p.m. Thursday

William P. Faust Public Library

6123 Central City Parkway, Westland


(734) 326-6123