Lolita Hernandez isnt the first Detroit writer to turn our eyes and tune in our ears to the poetry and song lurking behind the gates of a Motor City assembly line. Poets Philip Levine, Lawrence Joseph and Jim Daniels (all native Detroiters) have put their pens inside those places of disquiet and given voice to a world thats too often only written about from a tourists perspective. All three had branding experiences inside that world and have captured it on the page, forging out of those experiences some of their best work.
Another Detroit author a fiction writer this time out, and a woman is giving a new voice and story to the subject of work, a writer who has turned her own exacting eye and lyrically attuned ear to the images and stories from the interior of one specific and well-known Detroit factory landscape: the Clark Street Cadillac plant, where workers used to wrestle those Caddies into existence, blow them off the blueprint, and sweet-talk them off the line like you sweet-talk love on a Saturday night.
The writer is Lolita Hernandez and, for more than two decades, Hernandez worked as one of those sweet-talkers inside the Clark Street Cadillac plant. But Hernandez does more than talk in her debut collection of stories, Autopsy of an Engine and Other Stories from the Cadillac Plant, which was recently awarded a Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center.
What Hernandez does with an equal dose of mystery and magic is sing these otherwise unsung stories to life. As readers, we become so absorbed with the songs mellifluous notes that [we] didnt notice them slip from [her] mouth. Its that sort of seamless storytelling that lures us inside this world with its siren song until we too are standing on the line, leaning into the line so that [i]n her left ear there was music [while] in her right [ear] the cacophony from the piston area ... she pretended ... was the roar of the ocean.
In the introduction to the book, Hernandez writes, This collection of twelve stories is my adios, a swan song to the people who loved to let the name Cadillac roll off their tongues the way those babies rolled off the line, but who also struggled in the pits, like sardines on the motor line, frying from sparks in welding, eaten alive by chemicals and plating. Out of such suffering Hernandez makes art, and Autopsy of an Engine is a rare literary artifact that, like a shiny new Cadillac, is built to last.
Lolita Hernandez appears for a reading and book signing at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17, at Alumni Hall in the Madame Cadillac Building at Marygrove College, 8425 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit; 313-927-1448.
Peter Markus is a poet and freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].