2021 L.A. Times Festival of Books Preview
Philyaw, a finalist for the Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, will appear April 23 on “Fiction: The Art of Short Story” with Carribean Fragoza, Ben Okri and Shruti Swamy with Dorany Pineda moderating.
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Deesha Philyaw’s short-story collection “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” is having a moment. It’s a finalist for a Times Book Prize and won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award on Tuesday. But on a recent video call, Philyaw wants to talk about other writers instead. Specifically, two writers who, like her, grew up in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Not one paper in the country has picked up on the fact that three Black women from Jacksonville have the three hottest books in the country right now,” says Philyaw, speaking from her home in Pittsburgh. “Not even the Florida Times-Union!”
The two other writers are Dantiel Moniz and Dawnie Walton, whose works of fiction — “Milk Blood Heat” and “The Final Revival of Opal and Nev” — were both recently well-reviewed. Walton, Philyaw delightedly shares, graduated from her high school, albeit five years after she did. “No way was a senior going to talk to a seventh-grader!” she says with a laugh.
As for “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” it’s a finalist for The Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, was on the 2020 National Book Award shortlist and won the Story Prize last month before taking the PEN/Faulkner. “This whole year has been the worst year of my life, in this pandemic where I’m worried about my health and well-being and that of my family, of friends,” she says. “Yet it’s professionally the best year of my life.”
At 49, Philyaw has played the long game. “I never felt like I was in a hurry,” she says. “I started writing fiction about 20 years ago, but it was always an indulgence because I had to make money. I got divorced, I was a single parent to two daughters — and you get paid for writing essays, not short stories.” Her writing for magazines dried up after the 2008 financial crisis, leading to a series of freelance editing and fact-checking gigs. “I was buying time to write my fiction, but that novel I was working on never took flight.”
In the meantime, to keep her writing muscles strong, Philyaw wrote short stories. After taking a corporate job in 2016, she realized she had lost interest in her novel’s protagonist. “I didn’t even like her anymore,” she says. “I didn’t care about her central problem.”
Maybe that’s because the author needed to find her way back to a place where her own problems mattered. Maybe, I suggest, it had to do with the high expectations her mother and grandmother raised her with — pressure to make use of opportunities they had never had.
“No one has asked me to draw a line between them and me until right now,” she says. “I want to talk about it, because for so long I was on the outside, looking in. I always felt like I was so different from my friends — not better but different. But my mother harped on my being better. She got pregnant with me when she was 18 because she didn’t know how one gets pregnant.” Her mother always saw her daughter “as an extension of her,” creating a situation that left “a lot of wounds.”
The gap between women’s desires and other people’s expectations, whether set by family, church or profession, forms the stuff of “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” As a young woman listens to a pastor’s sermons on sin, she yearns for the pastor’s wife. Another character hooks up with a stranger in the waiting room of the hospital where both of their mothers lie dying of cancer. Two other stories are connected by pans of peach cobbler, its sweetness a stand-in for sex and its richness a stand-in for love.
When she was growing up, Philyaw says, she didn’t understand the need for stories about Black women by Black women. That changed on her 20-hour train ride from Florida to Connecticut to attend Yale University. “I had not been a politically minded or aware person,” she says. “I was Black. I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood, raised by Black people, but I was not in tune with the struggle. To my mother, Dr. King was the good guy and Malcolm X was the bad guy.”
On the train, however, Philyaw decided to read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” a gift from her 10th-grade history teacher. “I was a different person when I stepped off that train,” she says. “I hadn’t known all of the nuances and intricacies of Black history, and I didn’t understand the need for Black pride. That we are fighting for our wholeness and our very souls. That the country we live in was founded on principles of discrimination and that some people are actually invested in maintaining these inequities.”
Unlike Philyaw’s matriarchs, who “put everybody else first,” the women in her book start to recognize their own needs. “I realized the most important thing I could do in my life was to honor their dream for me, but I had to learn to say ‘I want this for me,’” she adds. “They didn’t model that for me, but I am finding a way to model a balance of generosity and creativity for my own daughters.”
A big part of it for Philyaw is the idea of loving other Black people “and not seeing them as competition. That’s how I’m moving in this writing world, with people like Kiese Laymon and Robert Jones and Dawnie and Dantiel. You know, we call each other cousins. We’re family. … It’s important to see other people through the lens of care and not just success.”
Philyaw laughs at the mention of a very famous, successful writer who recently complained about contemporaries on social media. “Imagine being at that point in your career and being that miserable! I’ve watched other writers get really invested in the idea of the awards and accolades and be disappointed or critical about things when they don’t win. Do I want to spend my time and energy tearing down books and writers, or do I want to take that same energy and build them up?”
High expectations for Philyaw aren’t going away. Hollywood powerhouse Tessa Thompson will soon begin production on an adaptation of the stories. Reached by email, Thompson explained what drew her to the work as a Black woman: “We are not a monolith, and in Deesha’s hands these women are allowed their untamed humanity. They are at once funny, touching, heartbreaking and will make a stunning series.”
As a writer who has tasted success, what expectations does Philyaw have for herself?
“Here’s what’s going to make me happy: publishing this book. And then if Black women love it, I did a good job. And then if other people love it, too, awesome. I want my joy not to be dictated by something so fragile as prizes, because taste and trends are subjective. There’s going to be a time when people aren’t excited about reading Black women. I’m still going to be writing about Black women.”
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.