Deesha Philyaw on The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Deesha Philyaw. Photo by Michael Blades.

By Jennifer Tianen

Deesha Philyaw, a self-proclaimed daughter of Florida, grew up in Jacksonville as a member of Generation X. On Sunday morning, she took to the stage in Key West to read from her debut story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Its nine stories follow four generations of Black women bound by double standards, and the church’s expectations of what makes for a “good woman.” Philyaw has been invited by several Black women pastors to speak to book clubs around the country and noted that her work had been well received by church folks. 

From “Eula,” her story of Eula and Colletta, she recounted two best friends in their thirties still looking for the “perfect” husbands they had dreamed about since high school. Plot twist: Each year on New Year’s Eve, the two women rent a hotel room and spend the night making love, never to speak of it again the rest of the year. 

From “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” a love story between an art teacher and a physicist, Philyaw shared, “How do you make love to a physicist? When he unbuttons your blouse and asks, ‘Are we going to be the type of people who sit around talking about Rumi and black holes, or are we going to get naked?’, you answer, ‘Both.’” In the Q&A session that followed her talk, Philyaw revealed that this story was inspired by a real-life but unrequited attraction Philyaw had to a physicist. She interviewed him about black holes and reconciling his religious upbringing with scientific work. 

An audience member responded to a story excerpt including this line—“I don’t care why your wife won’t fuck you properly”—by asking if Philyaw’s parents had read her work. Poignantly, she explained that her mother passed away in 2005 at the age of 52 due to breast cancer. After losing her mother, “the love of her life,” Philyaw left the church, finding it only to be a series of rituals. Since the pandemic, Philyaw now finds a measure of peace in African diasporic religious practices.

Having been raised by her mother and her grandmother, both of whom are deceased, she believes that she cannot afford to squander the time she has. She takes a “zero fucks approach” to her writing and believes it is a privilege to write what she wants to write. Writing is play, experimentation, and the process of discovering, she said. She is determined not to be daunted by any kind of literary gatekeeping. Her mother and grandmother, Philyaw notes, spent their lives in servitude to other people, including her. She writes in their memory and honor.

Jennifer Tianen (McQuillan) is a veteran English teacher and Literary Gardener at West Bloomfield High School in West Bloomfield, MI. She uses plants significant to authors and their works to help bring literature to life for her students and the community around her.

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