By Katie Seitz, Host Committee Member
It’s no surprise that Washington, DC, the seat of US government, has captured the literary imagination. But for those of us who live here, the city has always been about more than politicians, cherry blossoms, and hunting treasure using inscrutable masonic symbols found on our monuments and public buildings. For your enjoyment and edification we’ve gathered some of the books and authors that showcase DC as a living city with deep roots.
Edward P. Jones is the doyen of DC literature, the recipient of almost every major literary award for his books about 19th and 20th-century working-class African Americans in and near DC. If you’re looking for shorter works, the first and third of his three books – Lost in the City, The Known World, and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – are linked short story collections. Jones himself is a professor of English at George Washington University.
Another quintessentially DC writer is Marita Golden, widely known for her writing, editing, and literary activism as the co-founder of the African-American Writers Guild and the Hurston/Wright Foundation. Her novel After, about an African American police officer grappling with having shot an unarmed black man, is set in a DC-adjacent Maryland suburb. The Wide Circumference of Love, her most recent novel, follows a DC family grappling with love and loss as its patriarch slowly succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. If you enjoy memoirs, be sure to check out her Migrations of the Heart, which is set partly in the District.
The acclaimed novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Ethiopian American writer Dinaw Mengestu, tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant running a failing grocery store in DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood. The novel highlights the connections and divisions between residents amidst the runaway gentrification of DC neighborhoods and at its heart, the impact of trauma and migration on Ethiopian immigrant communities.
For an enjoyable look at the seamier side of DC, try the DC Noir anthologies. Both volumes were edited by noted DC-based crime writer George Pelecanos and strive to represent the whole of the city and a diversity of writers. Pelecanos says in his introduction to DC Noir 1, “[i]t’s about the collective memories of the locals, and also about the voices. If you close your eyes and listen to the people of this city, you will hear the many different voices . . .We have tried to explore every quadrant of the city and many of the neighborhoods within them.” Pelecanos himself – a DC native – is the obvious choice for a DC-centric crime/noir novelist. If you haven’t already read one of his thrillers, get to it!
Some of the best histories of DC explore aspects of the city and its culture that are underrepresented or overlooked. Jesse Holland’s The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slavery Inside the White House and Black Men Built The Capitol: Discovering African American History In and Around Washington, D.C. both address the historical fact of slavery in DC. Holland’s book includes the ironic fact that the Statue of Freedom adorning the dome of the Capitol building owes its existence to an enslaved artisan named Philip Reed, who reassembled the model from its original plaster and cast in bronze.
Another interesting look into the lesser-known corners of DC history is District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, DC. This 40-entry graphic anthology spans 1794-2009 and touches on everything from dueling and the design of the DC metro to outsider art and the Senate’s secret speakeasy.
The last recommendation takes the music for which DC is best known, go-go, and uses it as a lens to discuss race, class, gentrification, and change in DC over the last forty years. Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City brings a deep and personal understanding of what a changing DC means to the cultural identity and lived experience of its residents.
So what if you’ve done your literary tour of the real DC and still find yourself craving the mystic, masonic, and semiotic? What if, at the end of the day, you just want to know what the deal is with that eye-pyramid thing on the dollar bill? For you, we have just the ticket – a Do-It-Yourself Lost Symbol Tour of Washington D.C. When you figure out the eye-pyramid, let us know.