Deesha Philyaw’s new story collection is a window into the rich, varied lives of Black women | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Deesha Philyaw’s new story collection is a window into the rich, varied lives of Black women

click to enlarge Deesha Philyaw - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Deesha Philyaw
The title of Deesha Philyaw’s debut short-story collection is a bit misleading. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press) may spark a visceral image of Black women who lead quiet or unseen lives.

But Philyaw insists that, in her community, these stories are prominent, and the relative anonymity of the title characters mirrors culture in general.

“I think about what Toni Morrison said about Ralph Ellison titling his book Invisible Man,” Philyaw says. “She said, ‘Invisible to whom?’ We’re not invisible to ourselves, but as a larger society, when we look at what we call our canon, when you think about the books that kids have to read in high school or college, it’s not always reflective of the whole of who we are as a culture.”

Philyaw will launch her book tour for The Secret Lives of Church Ladies with a virtual appearance on Thu., Sept. 3 as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Made Local series.

The stories in Secret Lives are richly rendered tableaus of the lives of Black women. In “Peach Cobbler,” a young girl misinterprets her mother’s liaison with a pastor, thinking she’s dating God. “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” is a not-so tongue-in-cheek manual for men seeking to have an affair. And “Jael,” arguably the book’s centerpiece, features the alternating voices of a teenager and her great-grandmother, illustrating the gulf between them.
click to enlarge Deesha Philyaw - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Deesha Philyaw
Philyaw, a native of Jacksonville, Fla. who lives in Wilkinsburg, says the stories are drawn from the folk wisdom and mindset of Black women she knew who were able to “make way out of no way. That’s something I always grew up hearing. … You see these women, these girls, these characters making do with what they had. That’s something that’s a thread, a theme that runs through the stories I heard from women growing up.” The collection is also a window into the rich and varied lives of Black women and Black communities. There is a tendency to look at such lives as being monolithic or uniform. But every story in Secret Lives reveals the subtle nuances, and sometimes the dynamic range of differences, in her subjects.

“I think about myself as a child, as a girl, watching church ladies,” Philyaw says, “but also watching women outside of church. And even within the church there’s a diversity of types. And as a kid, you’re watching and thinking, ‘Who am I going to be?’ And so often, we’re presented either with a monolith, or we’re presented with a binary: you’re going to be the whore or the Madonna, in the church or out of the church, when real life is just not that black and white. It was important to me that the women and girls in the stories were different ages. They had different mindsets and experiences and outlooks.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is being released during a time of burgeoning awareness of Black communities and culture in the U.S. Philyaw acknowledges that there’s been a corresponding increase in interest in these types of stories which have been traditionally overlooked.

“We have to be really intentional about seeking stories about experiences that aren’t our own,” Philyaw says, “and that haven’t been spoon fed to us from day one that these are the stories worth reading. We have to reject that, all of us, and read more broadly. I think we’re at a moment now where folks are reaching out to that. … We’re in this moment where we’re seeing the interconnectedness of our stories, we’re seeing stories that have been left out. And this pandemic certainly shows us how we’re connected and rely on each other to survive, literally to survive. And we haven’t been good at that as a country. That’s not our history.”

Made Local: Deesha Philyaw

A video conversation with Khirsten Scott, assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, presented by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. 6 p.m. Thu., Sept. 3. Free, but registration is required.

Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

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