Our location in Washington, DC is central to our identity as an MFA program. Our students explore some of the world’s best literary organizations and activities – and find quiet spaces to write and get inspired throughout the District.
Our students also take their place among a long lineage of other writers with DC connections, many of whom have set their novels, memoirs, short stories and poems in the city we call home.
Below are 10 of the best works of literature set in (or concerned with) DC – in alphabetical order by author name.
Do you have a favorite DC-inspired work? Let us know in the comments below.
S Street Rising, by Ruben Castaneda
Ruben Castaneda covered the crime beat for The Washington Post at the height of the crack epidemic – and struggled with his own addiction. His memoir tells the story of “S Street” – the infamous 24/7 open air crack market Castaneda visited during his off hours – and the characters that populated it, from church leaders to drug dealers to police officers.
River, Cross My Heart, by Breena Clarke
Breena Clarke’s debut novel follows the aftermath of a five-year-old girl’s drowning in the Potomac. Her parents and sister have moved to the city from North Carolina and must make a life for themselves in Georgetown, even as they struggle with grief.
The Maverick Room, by Thomas Sayers Ellis
Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington DC and attended high school in Truxton Circle. His first full-length volume of poetry has five sections, named for the quadrants of DC (NW, SW, etc) and showcase a range of styles and subjects – from family confessionals to Bootsy Collins tributes.
Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City by Natalie Hopkinson
In this social history, Natalie Hopkinson writes about DC’s “Chocolate City” – the black DC that outsiders couldn’t see in the 1960s and onward. The “Chocolate City” Hopkinson describes was defined by the 1970s emergence of go-go music and fed a vibrant community known, at first, only by its insiders. Hopkinson maps economic and political movements, cultural developments and community evolution onto musical milestones.
Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who continues to make his home in DC. His short stories tell of a girl who raises pigeons, of neighbors who frequent a small grocery store, of a woman who lives in a house bought with her son’s crack earnings, and of other African Americans living their lives in Washington, DC in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Black History of the White House, by Clarence Lusane
Clarence Lusane’s history takes a look at DC’s most iconic home through the lens of African American experiences and racial politics, from the generations of enslaved people who built the White House to the first black First Family to live there. Specific events at the White House are situated within their larger cultural context, and the stories of individuals become the stories of a nation.
Watergate, by Thomas Mallon
Thomas Mallon’s novel retells the famous Watergate scandal, weaving pieces of famous historical detail into a fresh, compelling narrative that gets closer to the heart and truth of some of the scandal’s mysteries. Seven characters take readers throughout Washington, DC and the Nixon administration in a suspenseful story that goes beyond what we’ve heard before.
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu
Dinaw Mengestu’s novel tells the story of Sepha Stephanos, an immigrant who lands in DC after leaving Ethiopia. Sepha opens a grocery store in a poor neighborhood. His primary friendships are with other African immigrants, but as his neighborhood begins to change, he befriends a white woman and her biracial daughter. The novel traces the changing racial politics of the community and the friendships – and how they both impact Sepha’s future.
The title’s “secret city” refers to the city that goes unnoticed by tourists – the “real” DC, populated by generations of real people. In his story collection, David Nicholson weaves the lives of reappearing characters across decades, anchoring the narratives around LeDroit Park. A changing neighborhood is the backdrop for changing lives of a black woman who works as a housekeeper for a white couple, a BMW driver who runs into an old friend from LeDroit, a barber watching his shop change, and others.
A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Williams Wells Brown was often overlooked – but his novel has taken its place among American classics. Clotel is considered the first published novel by an African American, inspired by the rumors that Thomas Jefferson had fathered children with one of his slaves. Wells Brown calls one of the children Clotel, and this is her story.