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Creative Writing Lecturer, native Detroiter and amateur Trinidadian chef Lolita Hernandez tells us how the city influenced her latest book, Making Callaloo in Detroit. Check out the interview to see why we are all looking forward to her upcoming book release party...
SID: How does your new book relate to Detroit?
LH: All the characters in it are Detroit. Everything that happens in that book happens in Detroit even though the characters themselves may be influenced by whatever homeland that they came from. But it’s all Detroit people. Just observing folks here.
SID: You’ve assigned a few writing prompts to Semester in Detroit students where they’ve had to observe people in the city, too. Has your work with SID students influenced the creative writing you do on your own?
LH: I think anytime you try to talk to someone, not about how to do something, but to do something. To write. To journal. It forces you to commit even more to your own work. Because you’re always reliving their fears and their insecurities and you realize you’re still there. You haven’t gone too much further. Except I realize I’m not too afraid anymore…of facing a blank sheet of paper. But that whole idea of not knowing what’s going to come out once you start working on something… it’s pretty daunting.
SID: When you sat down to write…did you know you were going to be telling stories about the Caribbean Diaspora in Detroit?
LH: I was writing this book not necessarily as a result of the Kresge. I was working on a novel and still am working on a novel… I’m just about at the end of it. When I applied for the Kresge I said my order of priority was to do this novel. I’m the kind of person who likes to have a couple three things going at the same time so if I get worn out on one thing I have some places to go. So I can say I can justify my existence as a writer. So I’ve had these stories cooking for a while. One of them is probably 25 years old, when I first tackled it. And then, you know, did a re-write and revised it radically. Others are pretty old. Some of them are fresh, hot off the press so to speak. These are stories that have been coming out for a while. Some have even been published somewhere. Because I’m a firm believer that if you have a collection going they should send them out in the world and have a life somewhere. So about half of them have been published. So once I got the Kresge I realized I was closer to having this collection of short stories than a novel. So I went with the stories.
SID: You’ve talked before about how food seems so close to family. About a year ago, when you were wrapping up your Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, you did a reading of your new work at the Scarab Club. You read a story about a Trinidadian woman who was making a special fish and pepper dish for her sick uncle. How much has the inspiration for stories like these come from your own life experiences or your own family?
LH: The story that you heard me read is actually the last of what I call my making trilogy. The first one was “Making Callaloo” which is something I wrote in like ’98. The other one, “Making Buljal” actually started out in another kind of thing. After writing Making Callaloo I felt so committed to how I did that, that I went back and revisited a story called “Making Bakes” just like I wrote “Making Callaloo”. And it worked. There were elements in both stories of a character being trapped in a doorway and no movement. And relating to another character. And Death. And spirits and all that old kind of garbage. And food and all that kind of stuff.
Well, I tried to do that with “Making Buljol” because I knew I had to make Buljol. Its one of my kind of favorite “hero foods” in the whole wide world. And I tried to write it that way and I couldn’t get it to happen. And I realized once again that each story is going to demand its own form. I had myself twisted up in knots trying to get that and then finally got it. It’s not the same format as “Callallo” and “Bakes” but it conveyed very similar things and—I felt—captured the same feeling.
SID: What is Callaloo?
LH: In Trinidad it’s the actual soup. A green soupy thing that’s made from the leaves of the bush of a Dashim plant. And they make this thing. Some make it with salt pork—which I don’t particularly like that one—and some make it with crab—which I really do like. And they put coconut in it. They put okra in it. And most often serve it over rice. And of course they put onions and garlic and all that stuff. Or its just sometimes a soup. And it also a metaphor for a mixture. A ménage of things. So the title is sort of a metaphor for that. Not only a dish. It’s the City of Detroit and myself in it.
All are welcome to get a taste of Detroit at Lolita Hernandez’s Book Release Party. Lolita Hernandez will read a full story from her collection “Making Callaloo in Detroit” this Thursday, June 12th, 2014. Her son, Pedro Hernandez, will give a heartfelt—and hilarious—introduction. Please join us from 6:30-8:30 P.M. at the University of Michigan Detroit Center for steel drums, Caribbean food, good company and great storytelling.