Well, aren't you a parasite for sore eyes.
The nation’s capital has served as the backdrop for many works of fiction. Monuments and landmarks have made for settings familiar to locals and visitors alike. And authors with local roots have used tightly-knit communities and gritty streets to share their connections to D.C. with audiences. We explore the literary fabric of the city and learn about a new mapping project that will help readers explore the city through books.
- Susan Richards Shreve Professor, George Mason University; co-chair, PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors; author.
- Anthony 'Tony' Ross Librarian, D.C. Public Library; co-creator, DC By the Book
- Dana Williams Professor and Chair, Department of English, Howard University
Best Books Set In Washington, D.C.
The D.C. area has been the backdrop for many books, whether short stories, novels or nonfiction. Our guests highlight the best books set primarily in and around Washington, including those penned by authors with local roots and books with strong allusions and mentions to the area.
Dana Williams’s Picks
Anthony Ross’s Picks
Susan Richards Shreve’s Picks
Shreve has written eight books featuring the Washington region. This is her most recent.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The nation's capital has served as the backdrop for countless books. Political thrillers, family dramas, historical fiction and gritty crime novels have all been set and around the District. But the story of literary D.C. is a veritable tale of two cities.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere's the capitol, a seat of power where politicians wield influence and mysteries swirl. And there are the neighborhoods where everyday tragedies and triumphs unfold. In some stories, the two are kept apart but in others they collide and intersect. Today we explore the literary landscape of the District.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd here to serve as our guides are Susan Richards Shreve. She is the author of numerous novels, the most recent of which is "You Are the Love of My Life." She's also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University and is part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors. Susan, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Dana Williams. She is a professor of African-American literature and the chair of the Department of English at Howard University. Dana Williams, thank you for joining us.
MS. DANA WILLIAMSThank you. It's my pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd joining us in studio also is Anthony Ross. Tony Ross is an administrative librarian for neighborhood libraries with the D.C. public library system. He's also the co-creator of D.C. By the Book. That's a website that aims to map literary D.C. It’s a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or you can simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. What novels set in D.C. are your favorites?
NNAMDITony, part of the inspiration for this discussion is a project that you're working on. What is D.C. By the Book and just as importantly, how did it all come about?
MR. ANTHONY "TONY" ROSSWell, Kojo, thanks for having me. It was one of those shower moments where I was sitting there thinking like, wow, it'd be really neat if I could take all these George Pelecanos books and sort of map all the locations. But that was...
NNAMDIThat was in the shower in the early 1990s.
ROSSYeah, it was the mid '90s. We didn't have the technology to do that back then very easily. And now with Google Maps and other online tools, mapmaking is a much more open process. And we worked with our colleagues at D.C. public library and put together a grant and got a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Studies to build this website in which basically we're taking passages of fiction set in Washington, D.C. that describe particular neighborhoods or intersections or places and put those on an interactive Google Map so that folks can explore the city that way.
NNAMDIThe dream that this gentleman had during the mid 1990s becoming reality today. This project, however, seems to sit at the intersection of all of the different work that you have done. Tell us a little bit about that and you're a D.C. native.
ROSSI am a D.C. native. I grew up up by the Chevy Chase library actually and went to Lafayette Elementary School, so -- Lafayette 83. You know, it combines what most of us at the library have, which is a love of reading and a love of books with a deep appreciation of the city that we all live in as opposed to, like you said earlier, the sort of federal city that most people know Washington, D.C. as, the city that we live in. How can we celebrate that in another way? And a lot of people just sort of tap into it another way.
NNAMDIBut in your adult experience you've worked for a publishing house in New York and you interned at National Geographic's Map Division. So a few things come together naturally for you.
ROSSIt does. I'm a D.C. native. I spent the first ten years of my life overseas and we did a lot of traveling around when I was a kid. And maps just have always been a passion for me. And so, yes, I've combined literature and mapping in a way that, as far as we can tell, this is the first project of its kind.
NNAMDIWell, there's a lot of non-fiction about this city. Why did you decide to focus on fiction?
ROSSWell, yes, you can read histories and memoirs and learn a lot about the city but throughout human history we've told stories about ourselves and about where we are. And we think that fiction is a very interesting lens to look through the city at. I can -- there's a very good book that just came out about U Street, for example and I can get a lot out of that. But that might not appeal to some readers, whereas a passage of fiction about U Street inside of a larger sort of fun narrative might get a lot of that same content across in a way that's very different.
NNAMDITechnical standpoint here -- or technical point here, the D.C. By the Book website will launch with some content already loaded but the main driver, it is my understanding, is going to be crowd sourcing. How will that work?
ROSSBasically anyone can -- the website launches next Wednesday. We're having a nice event at Bus Boys and Poets at 5th and K from 6:00 to 8:00. And by that point the website will be live and there'll be a form. You can just fill out a quick form with the book information and a passage, and that'll go through to our staff in special collections at the D.C. Library to curate it. And then it'll go live on the website.
ROSSBecause the problems is, Kojo, that we've identified about 1,000 books -- 1,000 works of fiction set in D.C. And, you know, if I read one of those a week that'll take me about, you know, 20 years to go through all that. So we're looking for the public to help us and for the public to really identify those passages that are really meaningful about the city. And it's another way that -- you know, people think of libraries as warehouses of books and we're so much more than that. And these days we're about creation and about collaboration. And this is an online way to get people involved with what we do.
NNAMDIYou're launching from the right place, Andy Shallal surrounded by bookworms. Dana Williams, other major American cities, New York, Boston, Miami, are each evocative in their own way but is there a sort of added layer of significance, an added layer of symbolism that comes with setting a story in the nation's capitol?
WILLIAMSI think there is and part because so much of, as you suggested earlier, the D.C. stories that we think about in history. Either family history or even kind of national history have to do with this conflict really. Or looking at D.C. as this fight of democracy and then the contestation of democracy, particularly in books, fiction, poetry, historical narratives, whatever the case or whatever the genre, particularly those that are related specifically to minorities where this kind of difficulty with what democracy in the seat of power means and how you access it, and the ways that it becomes really complicated when you add in additional layers.
NNAMDISame question to you, Susan Richards Shreve.
SHREVEI think one of the interesting things that fiction can do in terms of what you're saying, Dana, is that it's character based. And so it really does have a different subject. The subject of power and the subject of people is very different. Really you have to sort of shave off the ages when you're in a position of power.
SHREVESo one of the things that I think about D.C. you find in Edward Jones who lived in Shaw, who may have been the first really true Washington, D.C. author, taking a neighborhood that was not affected by power except that it was powerless and giving it a kind of dignity and heart. And I think that also bringing in subtle ways to the attention of the larger, since he's gotten a Pulitzer prize and a MacArthur grant and every other imaginable prize. Bringing D.C.'s minority to -- which is really a majority in D.C. to a much larger audience.
NNAMDIEdward P. Jones joined us in 2003 to discuss his Pulitzer prize-winning work, things known and unknown. If you're interested you can go into our archives and find that. We're talking about literary D.C. with Dana Williams. She's a professor of African-American literature and the chair of the Department of English at Howard University. Tony Ross is an administrative librarian for neighborhood libraries with the D.C. public library system. He's also the co-creator of D.C. By the Book, a website that aims to map literary D.C.
NNAMDIAnd Susan Richards Shreve is the author of numerous novels, the latest of which is "You Are the Love of My Life." She's also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University and is part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Is there any author who, for you, stands out as getting the city right, 800-433-8850? Dana Williams, is there a distinction to be made between -- and this questions ultimately for all of you -- a distinction to be made between novels that capture D.C., the nation's capitol and D.C. the place where we live?
WILLIAMSI think so. I think two authors in particular. So you'll laugh at me I'm sure, Susan. My guilty pleasure is the Alex Cross series, in part because it's set in D.C. So there's the combination of the seat of power and the difficulty of mystery that, you know, Patterson is able to capture. But then you contrast that with someone like Breena Clarke who really writes about family. And she writes particularly about historical events and people around the family situation in Georgetown.
WILLIAMSSo the difference between say Breena Clarke's "Stand the Storm" or "River Cross My Heart" and the Alex Cross series or even Dan Brown or someone who's dealing with both politics, mystery, power and family life trying to find ways to combine all of those, I think we see the distinction but also some similarities.
NNAMDII know at one point in one of the Alex Cross series when he moved into a house he said at the corner of 6th and M Street Northwest, I'm going like, that's right up the street from the police precinct. I know that house. Is that one of the reasons you decided to embark on this project, Tony?
ROSSYes, that's exactly right. I mean, you know, there's a lot of fun to be had in recognizing the places in places you're reading. I mean, we see some of that with film as well, although usually when it comes to Washington we're sort of groaning at how badly they've gotten it wrong or how, you know, Vancouver is trying to substitute for Washington.
ROSSBut with fiction, yeah, that's what the site is all about is trying to tease those passages out of fiction and put them in a way that people can find them more easily.
NNAMDIIt seems to me much of your fiction, Susan Richards Shreve, you bring the two together, the nation's capitol and D.C. the place where we live.
SHREVESort of in an arbitrary way because I'm not particularly political.
NNAMDIThis is true.
SHREVEBut I think one of the things that is so surprising to people who are not in Washington is that you can't help but be. You're at the grocery store, you're walking next door. That intersection is impossible to avoid. And also people in power have family lives. And I think that this has been a subject. It certainly was a subject for me growing up because it is a city in which you have a sense of expectation that one may not have -- I'm from Urbana Ohio -- you don't necessarily have in Urbana, Ohio. You have a certain kind of freedom there.
SHREVEAnd my children, one of them lives in Chevy Chase, D.C. and her children are at Lafayette Elementary. And I can see it now that sort of conflict between expectation and what you really want to be exists in this city. So I'm interested in that. I was affected by it. I think my children who grew up here were affected by it. But I'm a domestic novelist and I look at domesticity as kind of a microcosm.
NNAMDIYes. Onto Max in Fairfax, Va. Please put on your headphones all of you so that you can hear Max. Max, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXHey, Kojo. I definitely can echo your sentiment about that house next door that comes out of a page in a book. I used to live in Albany, N.Y. and the book "Ironweed" was set right around the place where my house currently stood. And that was just fascinating for me. And that kind of goes with my point is that one of the things I love about historical fiction is the fact that you can see how cities are dynamic over time and how neighborhoods change. And the ethnicity of a city and the socioeconomic level of a city can change.
MAXAnd, you know, we're only in cities for a short amount of time, especially in the D.C. area, and it's just great to remember that it's constantly changing and developing.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Is that one of the things you expect to come out of literary D.C., Tony Ross?
ROSSYeah, definitely. I mean, as we look back in books, you know, even from the '60s or the '50s or the '40s you're seeing -- we're finding passages that talk about gentrification that happened back then, you know, where neighborhoods -- especially ethnic neighborhoods were shifting.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation on literary D.C. In the meantime, keep your calls coming. The number's 800-433-8850. If a book takes place in D.C. and the geography or atmosphere are somehow off, does it bother you, 800-433-8850? Or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about literary D.C. and mapping the city through fiction. We're talking with Tony Ross. He is an administrative librarian for neighborhood libraries with the D.C. public library system. He's also the co-creator of D.C. By the Book, a website that aims to map literary D.C. Dana Williams is a professor of African-American literature and the chair of the Department of English at Howard University. And Susan Richards Shreve is the author of numerous novels, the latest of which is "You Are the Love of My Life." She's also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University and is part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Dana has already mentioned a couple of names but I'm curious to hear from each of you whether there are one or two authors or a few specific novels that come to mind straight off the bat at getting D.C. the whole city right. Who comes to mind, starting with you, Tony?
ROSSWell, I'm not sure about the whole city because I often think of a city in terms of different neighborhoods. But one example I'd like to share is "Odyssey to the North" by Mario Bencastro, which is set in and around Mount Pleasant in the early '90s and is a sort of semi autobiographical novel about a Salvadoran immigrant to the city. And, you know, the Salvadoran community is very large here and very significant, but this is one of the only novels or works of fiction that speak to that experience.
NNAMDISay the name again.
ROSSThe book is "Odyssey to the North" and the author's Mario Bencastro.
NNAMDIGot to make a note of that. What stands out for you, Susan -- or who stands out for you?
SHREVEWell, I'm going to name a couple. I started with Edward Jones...
NNAMDIEdward P. Jones, yes.
SHREVE...who certainly does stand out. Thomas Mallon who is an historical fiction writer, and his book "Fellow Travelers" during the period of Senator McCarthy's red-baiting coinciding with the lavender scare, and now the sort of concentration of gays in DuPont Circle. This really brings to life a certain conflict in the city, political conflict, personal conflict and what he's doing about place here -- he himself lives in Foggy Bottom but I think he wrote this before then -- is really excellent.
SHREVEAnd another writer who's I think a person that everybody loves personally is Richard McCann and his collection of stories which also are like a memoir. Take that edge of Washington right around the circle, that he was in Silver Spring in the book "Mother of Sorrows" about a childhood growing up in really what was like track housing, quite the opposite that you think of a lot of Washington. And out of this geography -- Catholic geography comes a book of immense personal sorrow.
NNAMDIYou can find the books recommended by our guests at our website kojoshow.org. Dana Williams, who is it -- who does it for you?
WILLIAMSWell, I mentioned Breena Clarke. And I really like her writing in part because it is authentic but also fictionalized and it helps us to think about who we are in ways that we might not otherwise think about it. So I'm thinking about "River Cross My Heart" in particular, her 1999 novel.
WILLIAMSIn a much smaller way My Haley has a new book out titled "The Treason of Mary Louvestre." And so D.C. becomes this character. Literally Mary Louvestre is trying desperately to get to the city because of what it represents. She's essentially assumed the character of a union spy because she has really sketches of this big warship. And she has to get it to the secretary of the Navy. So for 200 pages you're imagining this D.C. and her travel from Norfolk to D.C. until she actually gets here. And then it becomes literally the character that she has to engage.
WILLIAMSAnd I like the way that she represents the city for all of its really complicated ways but then also the really simple ways in terms of how she sees the city for the first time, having come from a very rural area.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, do you seek out books that take place in and around Washington, D.C.? Why or why not, 800-433--8850? Susan, you've written over a dozen novels and most of them take place primarily here in Washington. As a writer how do you approach the depiction of the city?
SHREVEWell, in a sense, as if I were living in Urbana, Ohio, the sense of the people who live here, the sense of family life, the sense of the intersection of politics and every town. Every small and large town and city has an intersection of politics and domestic life. It's just a little bigger and seems a little more important here.
SHREVESo I start with a character living in a place. And the place is usually -- this last book took place in Chevy Chase, D.C. But everybody thinks it takes place in Cleveland Park and it's quite different. Those two areas are quite different. I wrote a book called "Children of Power," long out of print, but that book took place at the Sidwell Friends School, now getting known as the School of Presidents. And it was definitely an intersection of power and children of power.
NNAMDIDana, a lot of readers near and far come to know D.C. through mysteries and thrillers, full of intrigue, full of action. It's my understanding that you won't pick up a book from that genre if it's not set here. What is it about D.C. as a backdrop that amps up the action for you?
WILLIAMSWell, it's the very thing that Susan talks about. And I laugh because I may pick it up if I like the author. But overwhelmingly, if the capitol is on the cover than I'll at least look at the flap copy, whereas otherwise with mysteries -- and part because I read for a living. I mean, I literally read with a pencil behind my ear. So it's difficult for me to make choices. We all have these huge stacks and say, someday I'll get to this.
WILLIAMSSo one of the things that I was able to do in terms of talking myself into narrowing things down, is I wanted to be able to see the intersection of politics and domestic life, or even personal life. If it's not like within the house itself then having people to understand something about who they are as it relates to this kind of intersection between power on a personal level, but then also on a more national or an international level we're coming to see even more.
NNAMDIYou read with a pencil -- I had an English teacher in high school who always read...
WILLIAMSI'm an English teacher.
NNAMDI...with a pen sitting at a desk. Don't you ever, like, lay back in bed and read sometimes?
WILLIAMSYes, I do. And now...
NNAMDIWith a pencil behind your ear.
WILLIAMS...sadly -- no, not without the pencil -- without the pencil I do. But sadly because we've lost so many bookstores I have surrendered to the iPad.
NNAMDISo have I.
WILLIAMSAnd I was resistant but there was a time when I could go ten minutes up the street, and at any point if I wanted to just get in the car and go get a book then I could. Because I could either go to the library -- and so it was interesting to hear Tony, too, talk about his life in terms of what library he grew up around. That's how it was for me growing up. The library was the place where thoughts came. And even, you know, part of my graduate studies, I think still about that space.
WILLIAMSBut now that there aren't bookstores so close by then I end up with the Kindle. And I don't read with a pencil with the Kindle or with the iPad or Kindle.
NNAMDITony, is it the same for you as it is for Dana, and that is you look for books with D.C. themes because you tend to favor those?
ROSSTo a certain extent. I mean, I like to read fiction from all over the world actually more than I like to read D.C. fiction. But now because of this project I'm finding myself immersed in this giant sea of books. I think my wife is getting a little upset with the state of the bookshelves at our house. I wanted to speak to one thing Dana was talking about, you know, crime in D.C. And of course that -- you can't talk about crime in D.C. fiction without talking about George Pelecanos.
ROSSAnd earlier, Kojo, you were talking about, you know, why no nonfiction. And I think to a certain extent George's books are a much better social history of the city than almost anything you're going to find in nonfiction.
NNAMDIIndeed. I was about to say that George Pelecanos has made D.C. crime fiction a kind of genre onto itself. What notes does George Pelecanos hit, if you will, Susan, that makes the city sing?
SHREVEWell, I think he just knows it. And his books are page turners. And I think they give you a sense of great familiarity if you're from here. I also think, when you mentioned, Tony, his social history, he's a social historian. And he's doing his social history, something he's -- he's an extraordinarily charismatic writer and man, and he's doing his social history through crime.
ROSSAnd one way he brings out that richness in his books is he comes down to our special collections at the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, and he delves into our Washingtonian room and looks at old maps and looks at, you know, old advertisements from old issues of the Washington Star and stuff. And that's -- he's looking at old radio playlists that -- you know, that kind of stuff that you can research at the library. And that's how he's getting a lot of that texture and detail just right for those of us who know it.
NNAMDIWe are a city of streets and alleys. And when you read Pelecanos you get the impression that any time he describes an alley you sense that he's been there.
NNAMDIHe's actually been in that alley because you know it. John in Washington, D.C., you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHey, Kojo, love your show. Hey, I just wanted to mention Gore Vidal's historical novels about D.C. and all the different places he mentions in them. the books like "Burr," "Lincoln," "Washington, D.C." And the buildings he discusses in the books, you can see -- you know, as a longtime liver in D.C. you can really see how the city has changed since the times he's writing about.
NNAMDIYeah, he was a native and D.C. lover too. Susan?
JOHNYes, yes, yes.
SHREVEHe was. And I'm familiar with "Washington, D.C." I haven't read the other of his Washington books. But he also had a sharp tongue and a very suspicious eye on what goes on here.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. We move onto Laurie in Washington. Laurie, your turn.
LAURIEHi, thanks for taking my call. I didn't know if anyone had talked about one of my favorite books, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" which takes place in Logan Circle and it's about the African immigrant experience and gentrification. And it's, I think, a gem of a novel. And...
NNAMDIWe had the author on -- I think it -- I know it was in 2012. I'm going to get a date on that so you can go into our archives and find that show, if you want to -- it was on October 18 of 2012 that we had the author on. So you can go into our archives and find that conversation. Laurie, thank you very much for your call.
LAURIEOkay, thanks. Bye-bye.
NNAMDIYou too can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Susan, the politic -- oh, I forgot to mention the name of the author. It was Dinaw Mengestu. Dinaw D-I-N-A-W M-E-N-G-E-S-T-U, Dinaw Mengestu. Susan, the political dynamics that play out in this city can be fascinating. You point to two novels from very different times that capture the inner workings. Henry Adams' "Democracy" and Christopher Buckley's "Thank You For Smoking." How do those stories hit the personal side of politics in different eras?
SHREVEWell, "Thank You For Smoking" -- I don't think when Henry Adams was writing we had lobbyists. I think lobbyists are a new phenomena.
NNAMDIRelatively so, yes.
SHREVEAnd Christopher Buckley and his father both carved a very large circle around a kind of look at the world. And his look at the scene in Washington I think was very sharp and funny. And Henry Adams' "Democracy: A Novel" is -- Henry Adams is associated with a kind of time in Washington of formality and a sense of confidence and belief in systems. And I think that in that particular societal -- particular kind of society that is fast changing and has been for a long time. And I think that there's something -- a kind of historical accuracy in that book.
NNAMDIWhat is it that inspired you to write primarily about Washington?
SHREVEReally what happened to me, Kojo, was that I wrote -- the third novel I wrote was about Washington, the novel "Children of Power." And in a review in the Times it said, you know, essentially there was a little remark about my showing off because there was a senator in the novel. And I thought, I will never write about Washington, D.C. again. And then I went back because it was my home. And I think to write accurately with a sense of the spirit of a place is, for some writers, very easy. And for me it's much easier to do from home.
NNAMDIAs a senator holding up the line in the supermarket you run into them in all kinds of places in Washington. Here's Steve in Bethesda, Md. Steve, your turn.
STEVEYes, thanks for taking my call, Kojo. I just finished reading a book by Stephen Carter who's a law professor at Yale, called the "Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln." It's a counterfactual history. It assumes that Andrew Jackson -- Andrew Johnson was assassinated and Lincoln survived. And then the radical Republicans and the senate tried to impeach Abraham Lincoln. But among other things he does a wonderful job of evoking what he calls Washington City, which I think maybe was a common name for Washington in the 19th century, the various neighborhoods of Washington City. And it's a wonderful novel and I'd highly recommend it.
NNAMDIStephen Carter was born in Washington, D.C. He now lives, I think, in Massachusetts, but he is a homeboy.
STEVEConnecticut. I think he's -- Connecticut.
NNAMDIHe's in Connecticut, yes.
STEVEHe teaches at Yale Law...
NNAMDIAt Yale, that's what it is.
NNAMDIBut thank you very much for bringing him up.
NNAMDII had a note to mention him, as a matter of fact. Dana, from the earliest days, African-Americans have been an important part of this city's history. How do we see that come through in works of historical fiction?
WILLIAMSI think in the Edward P. Jones stories and the fiction -- well, and in the novel but if you think about "Lost in the City" in particular you see D.C. across class and geographical spectrums, even as it's set primarily in the Shaw area, in and around. But we do begin to see and feel the spirit of D.C. and the way that the city actually impacts the way that people interact with each other, and really the way that they begin to think of their place in the world.
WILLIAMSAnd this question of place, who you are and what you deal -- and how you grapple with where you find yourself is one of the things that we see come out, especially in African-American historical fiction. How do I see myself in the world? Not just in this local space but in this international space as well.
NNAMDIYou mentioned My Daley's (sic) book earlier. We talked about Edward P. Jones. Care to comment on the same issue, Susan?
SHREVEWell, I was just going to mention Marita Golden.
SHREVEI'll have to say about Edward P. Jones, teachers have very little effect on writers. But on a writer like Edward P. Jones, no chance a teacher really ever touched him. But he did walk into a Jenny Moore workshop that I had when he was a little skinny 20-year-old boy.
SHREVEAnd you read his work and it blew your mind. And the most I ever did for him was to take him to the emergency room while my daughter, who had cut her chin, got it sewed up. But I think for...
NNAMDIYou mentioned Marita Golden?
SHREVEAnd Marita Golden in the "Long Distance Life," she grew up in the civil rights during the period of times after the Supreme Court decision on Roe versus -- not Roe versus Wade. What was it called? The Supreme Court decision integrating the schools.
NNAMDIOh, Brown versus...
SHREVEBrown versus the Board of Education. She grew up in Washington at that time, which was a really crucial time because there was a tremendous influx of African-American students, particularly from the South coming in. And her work, I think, really reflects this as does her sense of service to the community. In the book, I particularly think of is "Long Distance Life."
NNAMDII got to tell you a story about that book because Marita Golden and I lived on the same block for many years around the time that "Long Distance Life" came out. I read it, and I challenged her on the street, because we talked a lot, I said, this is -- there's stuff in here about your life that you never told me. She said, it's a novel, Kojo. It's a novel. I got so caught up that I thought it was her autobiography that she was in fact writing.
WILLIAMSWell, it's because she's such a beautiful writer.
WILLIAMSShe is a very beautiful writer, and very accurate. And the point that you make, especially about that tension with the time is present not just in that novel, but in some of her work more broadly, in thinking about someone who writes about a university space as well. So I was trying to think about the representations, and someone actually asked me this, what were the representations of Howard like in fiction, and it was on a listserv. And so the amount of stories or fiction that came around Howard, or more recently particularly in the sports arena around Georgetown for instance.
WILLIAMSSo how you grapple with education and segregation and integration I think is present as well. And Randall Robinson who of we know as an activist...
WILLIAMS...has written this really beautiful book, "Makeda," and he deals with both Morgan and with Howard and what happens when you deal with kind of the intellectual life meeting a personal life meeting really a political life as well. So those -- Marita reminded me -- or you're talking about Marita, reminded me two of those instances where we see the tension of education especially prevalent in the fiction.
NNAMDIWhat's the name of the Randall Robinson, book? How is the title spelled?
NNAMDIMakeda. Tony, you and Dana both flagged a worked from the '20s that was rediscovered a few years ago. Tell us about "When Washington Was in Vogue" by Edward C. Williams, circa 1926.
ROSSYeah. That was -- that book actually first appeared as a series of a sort of serial running feature in -- Dana, remind we which newspaper it was, the -- one of the historic African-American newspapers.
WILLIAMSI think it was the -- well, what was before the Afro.
ROSSRight. I can't think of it. The title doesn't come to mind. But it appeared as a serial, and then it was sort of rediscovered in archives by a scholar, Adam McKible, and he sort of assembled it back into a book with notes, and we're going to be reading passages from that at our event next Wednesday, and he'll be there to talk about a bit. But I was actually wondering, Dana, in terms of the -- when we're talking about the African-American experience in the city as represented in fiction, there's that, and then there's also "Cain". Maybe you could talk a little bit about "Cain" as well.
WILLIAMSSeventh Street, the little vignette -- and of course, I talked about ""Cain"" or think about "Cain", but it's so incredibly different to deal with in terms of genre, right?
WILLIAMSAnd it's difficult to teach, but I love teaching it, and my students, you know, hate it until they're finished with it, and then they go, that was really interesting, that was really good. What else can we see? So Seventh Street is this piece that really deals with nightlife in DC at the height of prohibition, and the thing that Toomer says that I think is really important about the piece is this is a story about the posts of the people who kept on going. Even as there were difficulties with everything from like how much to eat, what you would eat, employment, very emblematic, even of a kind of contemporary situation, this the story of people who kept going, and celebrated in the heart of some very difficult agony, culturally and artistically.
WILLIAMSAnd when we think about the representations of the arts, and D.C. especially, I think those are really fun to think about. It happens a little bit more in the poetry, but with "Seventh Street" and "Cain" and then...
NNAMDI"Cain" was by Jean Toomer?
WILLIAMSJean Toomer, yes. I'll -- 1923. Right around the same time the initial version of "When Washington Was in Vogue" came out, and that one focuses really on how do you return home from war. How do you recreate a life in a space that isn't necessarily your home, but that you have to try to make home as well. And it's one of those situations where we see the ways that Washington was very influential during the Harlem renaissance. So it wasn't the D.C. renaissance, it was the Harlem renaissance, but there were probably half of the real major estheticians in D.C.
WILLIAMSSo (unintelligible) was taking the train from D.C. while he was working at Howard into the cities. Zora Hurston, of course, was here, Langston Hughes, and so those are instances, that novel in particular, that collection, the way that Adam has put it back together especially focuses on the way that really D.C. influences the Harlem renaissance without the benefit of having it called that, you know?
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you noticed a shift in the way authors depict the city over time? What stands out for you? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on literary D.C. where we're mapping the District of Columbia through its fiction over the years. We're talking with Dana Williams, professor of African-American literature and chair of the Department of English at Howard University. Susan Richards Shreve is the author of numerous novels, the latest of which is "You Are the Love of My Life." She's also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University, and is part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors. Anthony or Tony Ross is an administrative librarian for Neighborhood Libraries with the D.C. Public Library System. He's also co-creator of D.C. by the Book, a website that aims to map literary D.C.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Tony, I'll start with you. Do you have a sense of whether the city's minority populations are as well represented in present day fiction as they are in novels set in the past?
ROSSOh, I think definitely so. I mean, I'm thinking of writers like Danielle Evans who has a great collection called -- with a great, great title called "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self."
NNAMDIThat's true. We had her on too, yes.
ROSSOr another writer I was thinking was Kenji Jasper who hasn't published in a few years, but he's had a couple of quite good books, I think. So I think those voices are definitely there, and, you know, with the rise of self-publishing, there's even probably going to more likely to find those new voices that historically might have been underserved.
NNAMDIDana, why is that as soon as I saw the title "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," I immediately knew it was written by an African-American? Explain that to me.
WILLIAMSWell, it's probably the language pattern. Your own fool self, right?
WILLIAMSAnd so there are real interesting conversations coming back again about the really systematic way that ebonics work that suggest that if we think about Lorenzo Dow Turner's work that suggest that linguistic retentions are present so that you can trace it literally from the tonal African languages, the arrangement in terms of syntax, and so I think it's the way that the title was positioned that linguistically it's very familiar to people who have their own system of language that is as rigorous and as consistent, and in some ways more consistent than English, which, of course, is a kind of corruption of Latin and a mix, really, of other languages. That's, I imagine, why.
NNAMDIWe interviewed Danielle Evans, the author of "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self," on December 19, 2011. Same question to you about whether in contemporary literature the minority, or African-American Community here is well represented in your view?
WILLIAMSI think so. And for the very reasons that Tony suggests. I mean, everything from self-publishing to an awareness of what is happening in the city that you're living in, and there really are a lot of really great artists living in the city for any number of reasons. I mean, it's a really great city to live in. I mean, it's second probably only to some international places, maybe like Paris or New York which, I know it's debatable in some instances, but I think so many writers are here, and people are thinking about the city in so many interesting ways that it's almost impossible, really, to think seriously about the city without thinking about representing minorities and doing so accurately.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
ROSSI mean, there's also the rise of -- the sort of recent rise of the genre of the street novel, or what's also called urban fiction, which, again, is a whole new set of voices by and for people who traditionally weren't doing a whole lot of reading of fiction. There are plenty of those authors who are in D.C. and set their stuff in D.C. And one other author I meant to mention was Kia Dupree who -- I forget who she's published by, a mainstream publisher, but she writes some really good books about the struggles that people face in poor neighborhoods, and told in a variety of voices.
NNAMDISusan, cities are not fixed, frozen entities. They're more akin to living organisms that change and grow along with their populations. Do you think that depictions of the city have changed significantly over the years?
SHREVEWell, I think Washington has grown immensely. This may be just having grown up here, it was a small southern city, the subject of most books in Washington took place in Georgetown, and it was very conservative, and it was certainly far from an ethnic city, and the African-American part of it was not represented in books in any sense, except for the people that you've mentioned who lived here. It was not integrated into the story in the same way that it is now. And now I think Washington is a vibrant city. Vibrant city in terms of the arts in every way, in terms of theater. We have PEN/Faulkner.
SHREVEYou mentioned I was with PEN/Faulkner. We have a writers in schools program that sends well over a hundred people, teachers, writers into the schools and the teacher teach their books, and just that small thing creates a very different literary climate.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Georgetown as one neighborhood that we've seen depicted in literature about the city from the start, and it has changed significantly. Dana, have we seen a similar literary shift if you will in other parts of town?
WILLIAMSWell, I think about historical fiction, and maybe not so much a shift, but in terms of the change of the area, but a shift in the way that the area is represented. So the different between the way Elizabeth Keckley represents the Lincoln White House in "Behind the Scenes," and the that Stephen Carter represents it in the new "Lincoln" novel, and even if we think about it across genres, the representation even of Keckley in the "Lincoln" film, which drove me crazy, or the representation of Lincoln in the vampire movie, which I only -- I admit, I only saw maybe 10, 15 of, so the shift happens, at least the way that I’m recognizing it as an important ways in the way that it is represented, much more so that the changing of the neighborhood.
WILLIAMSOr in poetry again, if you think about the way that Essex Hemphill represents DuPont Circle versus more contemporary representations. Because at the time what he's grappling with especially, is the challenge of being publically black and gay. And so the representation of DuPont Circle in fiction now, is very different, and you don't have the burden of trying to grapple with race, along with a sexuality issue as well.
NNAMDIWhat drove you crazy about the portrayal of Keckley in "Lincoln"?
WILLIAMSShe essentially says like two things, right?
NNAMDIShe was one dimensional.
WILLIAMSYeah. She was incredibly one dimensional, and if -- she could have been one dimensional if she had been one dimensional in the way that mattered, right? So if she were seen as this like king of covert person who's working in serious ways to convince the president, or even not to convince the president at all, but working outside of the home in that way that she actually was...
WILLIAMS...but we only see her essentially not even as a dressmaker as much as we see the person who is supposed to keep Mary Todd Lincoln. And to speak of that, I'm actually taking my students to see, I think it's "Mary T. and Elizabeth K." at Arena Stage.
WILLIAMSSo it'll be interesting to see the way that the director, and actually the script writer, portrays that relationship in a way that I hope is more representative of the way that Keckley shows up as a very insignificant figures who stops briefly outside of the house to tell Mr. Lincoln, if you're serious, this is what you must do and we will appreciate it. Keckley wasn't of the we'll appreciate it group.
WILLIAMSShe was working to make sure that people liberated themselves. They were not waiting for Lincoln to liberate them.
NNAMDIHere's Amy in Washington D.C. Amy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AMYHi, thanks so much. I'm a co-author of a series that has Washington D.C. as a backdrop. It's called "Capital Girls," and it's basically "West Wing" meets "Gossip Girl." It's for young adults and for women of any raise, and it's a fun read. There's not much serious about it. But, yet it does have a lot of political backdrop and sleazy senators and teen girls. So it's a great series.
NNAMDIAll of the things that people want to read.
NNAMDIAmy, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe move on now to Eva who is in Silver Spring, Md. Eva, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVAI'm an 84-year-old, born D.C. resident, but I never heard it called D.C. in all these years. It was always Washington. And I congratulate your show, and I'd like for you to understand that the African-Americans who came out of the south into Washington, a segregated town with slaves out of Georgetown where some of those slaves still exist, has a global impact if you tell its true history, and from Frederick Douglas's home in Anacostia it was never called D.C.
NNAMDIIt was always called, says Eva, Washington D.C. Is there a time you can remember, Tony, when we kind of started switching up from calling it the entire Washington D.C. to just D.C., and is there a distinction to be made between the two?
ROSSWow. You're getting -- that's an existential question there, Kojo.
ROSSI don't recall from my life, sort of -- we just use them interchangeably from my experience.
NNAMDIYeah. In my experience also. Care to comment, Susan?
SHREVEI do. I do. And it was called Washington when I was a little girl, and I felt that the D.C. came from outside the city. Those were the people I heard call us D.C. And not only was it called Washington, but there was a way you pronounced it.
SHREVEAnd I'm a Midwesterner. You pronounced it Washington.
NNAMDII still know some people who pronounce it like that. Eva, thank you very much for your call. We're running out of time very quickly. I just wanted to read a few of the emails. Bill emails, "Is there any literary convention which dictates the purposeful alteration of geography? For example, in the only Alex Cross book that I've read, the author moves St. Anthony's Catholic Church from northeast to southeast, or are there two St. Anthony's churches in D.C." Do you know? Do you know, Dana?
WILLIAMSWell, I don't know if there are two St. Anthony's, but I think...
NNAMDII know the one in northeast, yes.
WILLIAMSYeah. I think that the author tends to take poetic license when it's convenient. If he needs to move from one place to the next, then the church has to move as opposed to extending like 40 minutes into the plot.
NNAMDILiterary license, right Susan?
NNAMDISusan Richards Shreve is the author of numerous novels, the most recent of which is "You Are the Love of My Life." She's also a professor of creative writing at George Mason University, and part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors. Thank you for joining us.
SHREVEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDITony Ross is an administrative librarian for Neighborhood Libraries with the D.C. Public Library System, co-creator of D.C. by the Book, a website that aims to map literary D.C. Thank you for joining us.
ROSSThanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIDana Williams is a professor of African-American literature and chair of the Department of English at Howard University. Thank you.
WILLIAMSThank you very much
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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