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The Fiction Issue

The 2007 book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America closes with a few words from Edward P. Jones, who tells an interviewer why he began writing fiction about Washington, D.C. The people he met in college away from the District “had no idea that Washington was a place of neighborhoods,” he said. “I wanted to correct the record, as it were, and talk about people who were not part of the federal government.”

It turns out that if you ask people to write a story about Washington, as we did for this issue, you learn just about everybody has internalized Jones’ feeling: Very few of the more than 50 submissions we received deal with the “corridors of power” or any of the other clichéd formulations of government that often define the city to outsiders. Jones’ magnificent work notwithstanding, this isn’t an easy thing to do. From Henry Adams’ Democracy to Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent to whatever brick of Brad Thor or Tom Clancy is clogging airport bookstore racks, the books that the general population encounters tend to give the sense that writing about D.C. means writing about the federal legislative-military apparatus.

Of course, anybody who takes fiction seriously knows that effective, revealing stories about a city usually avoid the big-name monuments: You don’t set a novel about San Francisco on the Golden Gate Bridge; you don’t set a Chicago novel in Wrigley Field. (Not a good one, anyway, not without real difficulty.) But the stakes are higher for D.C. fiction, because unlike any other metropolis it battles the perception that those monuments are the city. Some of what showed up in the fiction@washingtoncitypaper.com inbox attempts to reckon with this issue, but carefully, at arm’s length. The story set at the Lincoln Memorial isn’t about the Lincoln Memorial, not really. A story about Eisenhower’s inauguration turned out to be about art and hidden romance. Setting aside stories about a vampiric K Street denizen or two, contributors were content with relegating that stuff to the background.

Asking people to write a story about the District is a way to unlock a city’s id, and one of the more entertaining aspects of sorting through the submissions was learning what they’ll come up with when loosed from the demands of strict accuracy. Some ran off from the city limits­—stories rambled up to Glen Burnie, Md., and over to West Virginia. Others sank into Metro trains, which—sorry, WMATA—are consistently metaphors for darkness, confusion, and fear. But many of the writers who submitted for this issue concentrated on a theme that’s become its own cliché: The Two D.C.s. If there were few cases of federal power vs. just folks in the submission stack, there were plenty of attempts to find other ways to assert that there are two tiers of control in Washington. Black and white. Black and black. Entry-level and senior. Rich and poor. Carefree and button-down. Good girl and bro. Every story needs a conflict, but the instinct to render that conflict in terms of divided tribes was an unusually pervasive one.

Thankfully, not every story we received snapped to this structure, though a few were hard to meet on their own terms: I haven’t yet devised a theory of fiction that can fully reckon with a tale told from the perspective of a FedEx Field urinal cake. The best of what emerged does what good fiction ought to: surprise, and tell you something about a place, and the people in it, that you hadn’t thought about before. As editors with limited space to work with, we had some tough decisions to make. But the three stories we selected all say something interesting about what it means to be here.

This is the first time since the mid-’80s that Washington City Paper had published fiction in its pages. Partly because D.C. doesn’t have the reputation it ought to for being home to first-class fiction writers—and, frankly, partly because we worried that the call for submissions might leave us empty-handed—we called in a pro to lead off this issue. D.C. writer Eugenia Kim is the acclaimed author of the 2009 novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a sweeping tale set in Korea and a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her contribution to this issue, “Two White Feet,” is a much more intimate story about, among other things, the District’s transition in the late ’90s.

As for the three stories we selected from the submissions, we’ll let them speak for themselves: Nothing ruins the experience of reading fiction quite like an introduction telling you how you ought to respond to it. Suffice it to say that each of them reflect that Jonesian urge to correct the record, which may be the best possible reason to tell a story about this place.