Amid a year with very few things to celebrate, one of its most celebrated books was Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. To date, the short story collection has been a 2020 National Book Award finalist, won the 2020 Story Prize, a 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize for first fiction, and the 2021 Pen Faulkner Award, which Philyaw received just ahead of her appearance on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! The book has also been optioned by Tessa Thompson’s production company for a limited series for which Philyaw will be a writer and executive producer.
Most importantly, it’s a collection in which each of us—churchgoers and self-proclaimed heathens alike *raises hand* can see ourselves and our immediate communities. It’s also the culmination of a 20-year journey, as Philyaw told me during our chat.
“I was thinking about a book, but I wasn’t thinking about a collection of short stories—I was thinking about a novel,” she shared. “My first impetus to write was fiction, and I wanted to write a novel. And I was dissatisfied in my own life, but I didn’t feel comfortable writing nonfiction about myself. So I gave that dissatisfaction to these women, to these characters. And when I mined my memories and imagination and nostalgia and all of that, it’s these church women who emerged—and I didn’t think of them as church women.
“I’m from the South,” the Pittsburgh resident further explained. “That’s what I was kind of wistful for. And those women in and out of the church—because, you know, people were always reconciling that—including my mother, my grandmother—about whether you’re in or you’re out and all of these rules and how do you navigate that. And it made an impression on me. And so, I think that because it made such an impression on me from a young age, but also at the critical juncture of puberty.
“I think that’s why when I tapped into that creativity. That’s what came up, because I spent a lot of time watching church women and wondering about them and their sex lives and all of these things,” she continued. “And it was, you know, all this heaven or hell, and it was a lot and it impresses upon you as a kid...Those are the things that we feel like we can’t say...and here’s maybe a blueprint for how to get free—or it’s a cautionary tale of what happens if you don’t get free. But ultimately, I hope they can see what could be possible for them. And not that anybody should have to give you permission or validation, but some of us who have been influenced by the church, we are waiting for somebody to come along and say, ‘It’s OK if you feel this way, it’s OK. If you touch yourself, you’re not going to go to hell.’”
You can listen to more revelations from Deesha Philyaw in Episode 36 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Deesha Philyaw Talks The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript is also available for this episode.