Lolita Hernandez, who worked on the line and with the UAW for thirty-three years before becoming an instructor at the U-M Residential College, has written wonderfully about the people she knew at General Motors. Her earlier collection, Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, won prestigious national awards for short fiction. Her affection for the people who made the engines and her abilities to capture their language turn manufacturing into a deeply emotional experience. In a couple of stories in her new book, Making Callaloo in Detroit, she expands her pantheon of hardworking people navigating their way through a declining industry.
But Making Callaloo also celebrates Hernandez’s heritage. “My parents, both from Trinidad and Tobago, Mama by way of St. Vincent, were staunch island people,” she writes. “They never became naturalized Americans, mainly because Daddy wouldn’t give up citizenship to where his navel string was buried. And they kept up their culture through food and all that happens around the meal.” Hernandez re-creates their accents and language, the way they live, the things they care about, the sound of the music they listen to, and certainly a big taste of the food they make–callaloo, bakes, “schtew” chicken, pigs’ feet, and pelau. As she says in her preface, it’s “a trip to another world right here in the D.”
Living rich lives with little or no money, Hernandez’s island people are shaped by their background even as they struggle and celebrate in Detroit. “O lorse how these people could make coffee like that and then drink it and spend whole morning long eating bakes and talking a set of ole talk about life back home,” she writes in island lingo. And their people back in the islands find ways, through apparitions or dreams, to communicate important information to the relatives in Detroit.
My favorite story is “Over the Belle Isle Boundary.” Here an old man from the islands lives out his last days in one of the homes on East Grand Boulevard on “a treeless section of what was called convalescent row only a spit north of Belle Isle.” He has had a stroke and can’t communicate with the staff who care for him. His wife passed long ago, and there are no children around. He sends messages to his wife on motes of sunlight and thinks of the cricket matches once played by island people in the island park. Finally a young aide understands enough that she tries to help him get to the window. In one of the many magical moments in this book, the old man disappears. He is back on Belle Isle, where he has hit the last ball “over the road, past the sun, over the river heading west and out of view.”
Lolita Hernandez reads from Making Callaloo in Detroit at the U-M Residential College Keene Theater on September 26.