'The Secret Lives of Church Ladies' by Deesha Philyaw
'Do not ask me to repent, because I regret nothing.'—Review #190
Thank you to everyone who voted for Deesha Philyaw’s short-story collection in the poll we conducted earlier this month. (We’ll do another one after Labor Day.) ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,’ which 51 percent of you selected, was a 2020 National Book Award finalist, is being adapted for HBO Max and might have the most on-point title of any book I’ve read.
Here’s the cover:
Each story’s female protagonist has a churchly connection and something in their life where:
Among them: a girl watches her mother make peach cobbler for secret visits from a philandering preacher; a pair of strangers have assignations in the parking lot outside the hospice where each has a parent who is dying; a woman writes to a half-sister after the death of their wayward father, who, as an uncle put it, could describe his children like a spades hand—‘I got five and a possible’; and a teenager grapples with trauma, her great-grandmother’s house rules and the cigarette breath of her girlfriend’s much older boyfriend. Each story puts you into an intimate space, whether it’s inside a car where bodies entangle or inside the head of a character struggling with guilt, shame, rage, identity or longing. I was like:
I like how the stories feature strong and interesting female characters, and how Philyaw uses them to explore the tension between desires of the flesh and religious morality, as well as how religion can mask double-standards and sow division. We see, for example, status within the church used to rationalize or distract from infidelity and other sins. We see teachings ostensibly geared toward creating community and spreading love drive a wedge between a mother and a gay child. We see lesbian characters hide their identities as if they have strayed from God’s light, like:
As Kirkus put it, ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ is ‘tender, fierce, proudly Black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.’ I could not agree more. Philyaw’s writing is sharp, direct and beautiful. Every story in this collection is distinct and powerful, and I enjoyed every one of them. I think you will, too.
How it begins:
Eula books the suite in Clarksville, two towns over. I bring the food. This year it’s sushi for me and cold cuts and potato salad for her. Nothing heavy. Just enough to sustain us. And I bring the champagne. This year, which like every year could be our last, I bring three bottles of André Spumante.
And I got us some noisemakers and year 2000 glasses to wear. The lenses are the two zeroes in the middle. For all we know, the Y2K bug will have us sitting in the dark one second after Dick Clark counts down in Times Square. But that’s all right with me. Because that André sips just as well in the dark.
After we settle in, Eula digs into the potato salad and cold cuts. She’s real particular about what she eats. About most things really. She likes things just so. She’s a schoolteacher, like me, so we have to mind the details, though Eula minds them more closely than I do. But she can’t tell I bought the potato salad from Publix, added some chopped boiled egg, mustard, pickle relish, and paprika, and put it in my red Tupperware bowl. She eats seconds, pats her belly, and tells me I outdid myself.
After we’re finished eating and polishing off a bottle of the André, I start the shower. We like it boiling hot. The heat relaxes me, but I feel like it does something else for Eula. She stays in there long after I get out. Through the steamy shower door, I see her pink shower cap. Her head is bowed, and I wonder if she’s asking God’s forgiveness for stepping outside of His favor as she continues to wait on His provision.
‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ by Deesha Philyaw was published by West Virginia University Press in 2020. 175 pages. $17.65 at Bookshop.org.
Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #189
Read this: In a wonderful coincidence, a Q&A with Deesha Philyaw by Sari Botton was published by Catapult this week. It offers fascinating insight into her work, from ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ to her current projects. I really like the part where they discuss taking breaks from writing when writer’s block strikes, especially this line from Philyaw that hit close to home: ‘I think it’s also knowing yourself and the difference between this is the kind of break that leads to a breakthrough and this is just me avoiding and playing on Twitter.’
See this: President Obama released his 2022 summer reading list, and two books you’ve seen on Books on GIF this year were included: 'Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks' by Chris Herring and 'A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance' by Hanif Abdurraqib. Excellent choices! Here’s the full list:
See this, too:
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,