Leslye Penelope
Catch Leslye Penelope, author of The Monsters We Defy, at MahoganyBooks on March 18 for a discussion on Black fantasy; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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All too often works of fiction set in D.C. take place in the world of politics, with the Washington Monument prominently in the background. But fantasy writer Leslye Penelope’s latest book, The Monsters We Defy, is set in 1920s D.C. with barely a whiff of the White House. Instead, it’s a supernatural heist novel that’s also a love letter to the city and the glory days of U Street NW as an entertainment center known as Black Broadway. The author, who grew up in Maryland and attended Howard University, extensively researched and drew on real events and her own local history to bring texture to the story and flesh out the world. 

Penelope was originally thinking of writing a supernatural heist novel set during the Harlem Renaissance, but 2020 pandemic restrictions prevented her from traveling, and her research suggested that D.C. could work even better as a setting. “All these people, even Harlem Renaissance figures, came to D.C., performed in D.C., lived in D.C. I could do the same thing with the nightclubs and the music, the theater,” she tells City Paper

D.C. is also home to a nearly forgotten story that took place during 1919’s Red Summer, when white-supremacist acts of terror occurred in multiple U.S. cities and police indiscriminately arrested Black people for imagined crimes. Penelope read an article in the Washington Post that detailed the remarkable case of Carrie Johnson, who would inspire Penlope’s fictional heroine, Clara. During the chaos of Red Summer, Johnson and her father were trapped in their home surrounded by police, who burst in and fired upon the family. The father and daughter shot back, killing a white detective, and were arrested and charged with murder. After sitting in jail for a year and a half, Johnson was given a new trial and released. “How did she get out of jail?” Penelope asked herself. “She very easily could have been lynched for this and that didn’t happen, and to actually go free … maybe there was magic involved.”

The Monsters We Defy seamlessly blends these ripped-from-the-headlines ingredients with a set of magical rules and possibilities. Penelope gives her heroine the ability to talk to spirits, who can offer magical assistance—albeit at a price. Clara owes a debt to the spirit world, which she can repay if she steals a heavily protected and enchanted talisman. To pull it off, she assembles a crackerjack team with specialty skills, but in a fun twist, most of the members’ abilities are magical charms bestowed by the spirits that Clara communicates with. 

The book is sprinkled with actual historic events and appearances from real-life figures, all backed up by Penelope’s research. Clara seeks information from Professor William Hansberry, an actual professor of African civilizations at Howard University, who works alongside Langston Hughes—a bit of a layabout in this tale. She also works for Dr. Carter G. Woodson as a typist at the Journal of Negro History, one of the first scholarly publications to cover African American history. The inclusion of Woodson was personal for Penelope: He also founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, of which there is a branch named after Penelope’s grandfather. She also gave a nod to her own personal U Street memories, writing in a mention of Republic Gardens, where she frequently hung out herself.  

Next up, Penelope is writing another historical fantasy novel about an all Black town in the Deep South set in the 1930s that’s threatened to be flooded with the construction of a dam. “It’s not related to Monsters, but it’s a spiritual sibling,” she says. She’s frequently asked about whether there will be a follow-up to The Monsters We Defy, and says, “I wrote it as a stand-alone, but I left some room at the end for more stories, potentially. I do hope to return to D.C. because I really loved bringing it to life.”

The Monsters We Defy was published in August 2022 and was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022 and one of Paste’s Best Fantasy Books of 2022. 

Leslye Penelope joins two other authors of Black fantasy, Veronica G. Henry and Nicole Glover, for a discussion on March 18 at 6:30 p.m. at MahoganyBooks Anacostia. mahoganybooks.com. $0–$20.

Penelope will also be at Imaginarium Book Festival 2023 on May 20 and 21 at the National Press Club. imaginariumbookfestival.com. Free.