The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
It’s not surprising that Deesha Philyaw’s story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was a National Book Award finalist. Her writing is confident, moving, insightful and real. Each of the nine stories is deliberately and finely crafted.
Philyaw (pictured) begins with an epigraph by southern poet Ansel Elkins titled “Autobiography of Eve:” “Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” The characters in Philyaw’s stories belong to one of four generations of women. Each in their own way is on a precipice, choosing between the bonds of their deeply held faith and family and their personal desires and needs. These women are black, and beautiful; fierce, flawed and unforgettable.
The collection begins with a story about Eula and Caroletta, childhood friends and longtime lovers whose annual New Year’s Eve rendezvous is marred on Y2K because Eula still clings to the hope of creating a “normal” family with a husband and children.
In “Not-Daniel,” two adult children of hospice patients find solace and sexual release in the hospital parking lot. “Snowfall” looks at two southern transplants, Rhonda and Leelee, suffering through their first northern winter. Rhonda is comfortable with their move, insisting that for her, Leelee signifies home. But Leelee is more than nostalgic for Easter dresses and blue crab suppers with grandmothers and aunties—she’s keenly aware of the loss of all those things when she chose love and authenticity over tradition and family.
Sometimes short stories can be unsatisfying—not long enough to fully develop characters, or abrupt in their endings. Philyaw has a deft touch at integrating telling details, such as this one where Olivia reflects on the peach cobblers her mother made for Pastor Neely and forbade her daughter to eat: “Even though I no longer ate the peach cobblers out of the garbage can at night, my hunger remained. I still watched my mother make them because I didn’t want to forget how she did it.”
The complicated relationships between mothers and daughters is a repeated theme, as is infidelity. “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” gets right to the point: “You, the infantilized husbands of accomplished godly women, are especially low-hanging fruit.” The narrator makes it plain: we will not exchange phone numbers. Bring original copies of your STI test results. “When you’re here, don’t dawdle. I hate small talk. Leave your nerves outside my door. Do or don’t do; there is no try.” Philyaw hits every note with precision and clarity.
By contrast, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” is a tender take on new love. Forty-something Lyra is an art teacher convinced she will never find a man. When she meets Eric at an out-of-town conference, the connection is immediate, but her conservative upbringing compels her to be cautious despite her age. If she’s still not comfortable with her own body, how is she going to share it with her love? When her therapist asks, “What are you afraid of?” Her answer says it all: “Everything.” Yet Lyra, like all of Philyaw’s characters, is ready to face her fears and enjoy a more hopeful future.
Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to rural Whatcom County, including a wide variety of online resources at https://www.wcls.org/info. All branches of WCLS are open to the public.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 22, 2021.)