Short Writer Deesha Philyaw: ‘I wanted to challenge the church’s sexual obsession’ | Books
OWhen asked to choose their favorite story from The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw’s acclaimed debut collection, most people, the author tells me, say Peach Cobbler. This funny yet heartbreaking tale centers on Olivia, a young girl from the southern United States who believes the local pastor is God, because while visiting, she overhears her mother yelling “Oh, my God!” from the room.
At the center of the story is the “best cobbler in the world” – a fruit pie that Olivia’s mother bakes every week for her lover, but which Olivia is not allowed to taste. Philyaw set off, she tells me from her home in Pennsylvania, to write about “the blackest dessert,” and the Peach Cobbler came to mind. “In fact, the blackest dessert isn’t a peach cobbler, it’s a pound cake,” she remarks in retrospect. “But I think my brain knew there was more to Peach Cobbler than just Blackness – there are the textures, the softness, the sensuality of it.”
Whatever she wrote, the 50-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, kept coming back to her childhood and the “secret life” of the women she knew then. Having been sent to church from an early age by her mother and grandmother (who were not churchgoers themselves), Philyaw had always been curious about the southern black women around her and how they navigated the “rules” set by the church. “At first we were taught that sex was a no-no and anything that happened to you sexually was your fault,” she recalled. As she grew older and began to experiment sexually herself, she continued to wonder about the other women in the church: “Did they think sex was wrong? Did they like it? Did they masturbate? And how did they approach these questions? »
The characters of Church Ladies, which earned a National Book Award nomination and won the PEN/Faulkner Prize, LA Times Book Award and The Story Award in the US ahead of its UK release this week, react in different ways. There’s Eula, who insists on “running away” for marriage to a man, but happily celebrates her birthday every year by having sex with her best friend; there is an unnamed bakery owner, implied to be an older Olivia from Peach Cobbler, who provides married men with a set of instructions before they begin an affair with her; and there’s Lyra, who is forced to address the shame she feels around sex when she falls in love at the age of 42.
Philyaw and I talk via video call: me in London, mortified to find I woke the writer up at 6am; her in Pittsburgh, serene and cheerful, insisting that she’s usually awake at this hour anyway. She didn’t always want to be a writer, I learn. As a first-generation college student, Philyaw “aimed to go to college and do something practical and earn a lot of money.” If she had told her family that she had literary ambitions, she would have said, “I might as well have said that I wanted to be Michael Jackson.”
So she went to Yale, got a degree in economics and first worked as a management consultant (“I cried every day for months”) before retraining as a teacher, a job that she “absolutely loved it”. But when Philyaw and her then-husband decided to have children, she gave up teaching to stay home with her eldest daughter and started writing “just to do something that excites me.” In 2005, she timidly decided to try to make a living from her hobby.
While she was trying to write a novel, her first published book was a guide to co-parenting she wrote with her ex-husband, a project that happened almost by accident. Friends had dubbed the couple “the poster kids for divorce” because of how they handled parenting after their separation, and the book grew from there. Writing Co-Parenting 101 landed Philyaw an agent, bringing his dream of having a novel published one step closer.
It was during a break from the hard work of writing novels that Church Ladies began to come together. Philyaw had written fictional shorts in response to competitions and call-outs and failed to notice that his stories tended to share a common theme. It wasn’t until her agent started calling them “church lady stories” that she realized she had unknowingly zoomed in on issues from her childhood.
The resulting collection is so astute about the particular kind of sexual shame that strict religious teaching can cause that I’m surprised when Philyaw tells me she “didn’t have that kind of baggage” herself. Although she attended church until she was 35, she never felt fully subscribed to Christianity or beholden to its rules. When her mother, father and grandmother all died in the same year, she stopped going altogether – not because she was mad at God, but because she felt nothing at all. “Why do I get up on Sunday morning, the only morning I can sleep? she wondered. “Because I get nothing out of it.”
Fifteen years later, she is able to reflect on why the church stigmatizes sex so much. It goes back to the roots of the American black Christian community in slavery, she believes. “Slavery was justified, in part, by saying that we weren’t human, and that black women in particular were promiscuous and hypersexual.” So after emancipation, when churches became fundamental institutions for the black community, the response was often, “We’re going to be the opposite of that: we’re going to be clean and we’re going to be blameless, and we’re going to conduct ourselves politely.
This attitude led to the decades of generational shame that Philyaw observed throughout his life – but the writer does not want to entirely condemn Christianity. Her hope was that the Church Ladies would challenge the Church’s misogyny and “sex obsession,” without completely demonizing the institution. Likewise, she tried not to make the men in her stories evil. In fact, while the impact of a broader misogynistic culture is certainly being felt, men don’t show up much. Philyaw thinks his friend Damon Young, an early reader of the book, describes it best. “He said, the men in this book are like the garnish: they’re on the plate, but they’re not the meal. And I thought, that’s it. I really wanted to keep the women centered, but I certainly wasn’t trying to thumb my nose at the men.
The absence of men, especially father figures, perhaps reflects Philyaw’s own experience. Although none of the stories are directly based on the author’s life, she admits that there are “cores” of herself in there, and that “one of the biggest cores is in the Dear Sister story. Like Nichelle, the protagonist of the epistolary story, Philyaw grew up with four half-sisters who shared a largely absent father and, like the siblings in the story, she and her sisters decided to make contact with their fifth half. -sister when their father died. “Unfortunately, the four of us called her at the same time, which I wouldn’t advise,” she says, admitting the fictional letter is a sort of “redo.”
Another “core” of her own life in Church Ladies is Philyaw’s identity as a queer woman, a label she has only just begun to use. Although “queer” felt more specific than “straight” in terms of desires and life experiences, she was hesitant to use the word. “I felt like I was claiming something that I had no right to claim, because I had all these privileges and protections, having been married to men twice.” She recently asked for “permission” to come out as queer to her LGBT+ friends and family. “They reminded me that I was accountable to no one.”
This need for approval from the people we love – and the damage that can be done when we don’t get it – is explored in Snowfall, one of the most heartbreaking stories in the collection. Arletha, who lives with her partner, Rhonda, in Pittsburgh, desperately misses her mother and the South, where she is from, but her family relationships were all but destroyed when she came out as gay. With characters that can touch you so immediately, it’s no surprise that the screen rights to Church Ladies have been picked up by HBO – Philyaw is currently working on the script.
It also looks like the novel she’s been working on for over a decade – the story of a preacher’s wife – might finally come to fruition. If it’s anything like its predecessor, readers can expect to be touched by the warmth and wisdom of Philyaw’s writing – and left ever so slightly hungry for a slice of dessert.