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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Narrating Washington, D.C. from the Margins: Urban Space and Cultural Identity in "Lost in the City" and "The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears"


Washington, D.C. is a city of paradoxes. At once the site of a tremendous amount of power, wealth and representations of democracy, the city also contains impoverished sectors where residents are disenfranchised. In the following paper, I explore the ways in which two recent works of literature, Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City and Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears depict Washington, D.C. from these marginal places. Grounding my discussion in theoretical conceptualizations of symbolic and lived space, and applying these theories to urban space in Washington, D.C., I argue that these works evoke images of Washington, D.C. that differ from dominant discursive constructions of the city. I explore the ways in which these re-configurations of urban space in the capital city, articulated from the margins, present narratives that contest the dominant American Dream myth of striving and success. To conclude, I argue that literary works like Jones’s and Mengestu’s, which articulate experiences often occluded from the dominant urban narrative, provide us with “local knowledge” that highlights cultural difference and inequality in the city. I propose that these local forms of knowledge be incorporated into urban plans for democratic space in Washington, D.C. to make American discourses of “liberty and justice for all” a reality for more residents and users.

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