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“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” is a collection of short stories that takes a look at the sexuality of Black women in the church. Written by Deesha Philyaw, the book was recently published by West Virginia University Press.
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” has been taking the literary world by storm, winning the PEN/Faulkner Award, the $20,000 Story Prize, and the L.A. Times Award for First Fiction.
Philyaw spoke with Eric Douglas about the book.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Describe for me, in your words, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.”
Philyaw: It was definitely a passion project, it was definitely a work of my heart. These women have been living in my imagination and in my curiosity, since I was a girl. This book is the fruition of nostalgia and history and memory and wonder and hope for myself and other black women, to get free of the things that hold us back.
Douglas: So I have to ask, were you sitting in the back pew with one of your friends going “I wonder about her,” making up those stories, as all teenage kids do?
Philyaw: Not so much with a friend, but in my own mind. I was very curious about those women and their desires and their sex lives. Because I was trying to figure out what that meant for me, like, what are my options here? I was trying to make sense of what I was being taught and what I was being shown, which was sometimes contradictory. I was influenced by women in the church and women outside of the church. And there were all these binaries, which is so black and white. My body was changing. And I was trying to figure out, how do you navigate these longings that I now know are very human.
Douglas: I understand you wrote about a black experience, but I think it’s much more universal than that.
Philyaw: That’s one of the things that I hope people can take away from the book. I’m certainly not the first one to observe this, because Toni Morrison observed it, August Wilson observed that. They wrote exclusively about black life, but they both were clear and their work shows that you can tell universal stories through specific black characters and scenarios. Those themes about getting free, disrupting binaries, that’s something that all of us can relate to.
Douglas: The opening quote in the book is from Ansel Elkins in “The Autobiography of Eve.” It says “Let it be known, I did not fall from grace, I leapt to freedom.” That, to me. speaks to the whole concept of the book. There is a lot of sex in the book, but that’s not really what the book is about. It’s about personal freedom and understanding themselves.
Philyaw: That’s right. The narrative we’ve been given about Eve, is that it was a fall. I love that line, that verse, from Ansel, that it’s a reframing and reclaiming the Eve narrative by Eve herself. From her perspective, it was a leap. And it was a leap to freedom specifically. And so what happens if we reclaim these narratives? How do we tell our own stories instead of embodying the stories that have been told about us, which have been lies and distortions, and important things left out. When I say that I want black women to feel seen and heard in these stories, that’s what I mean. I hope that these narratives are a better reflection of them than what we have often seen about ourselves, and in particular, our sexuality.
Douglas: I wonder if in the context of the Me Too movement and some of these other things that this book didn’t land at the perfect time.
Philyaw: I think that so many of us are hungry to be reassured and so if you have been hurt by the church, if your agency around your body has been taken away, and whether that’s from assault to having a mother that wants you to wear a girdle, like in one of the stories, I think the book offers that affirmation and that encouragement that, yes, this happened, it didn’t just happen to you, there are lots of us, because this is cultural.
So the conditions were absolutely right for a book like this. These are things that we whisper just amongst ourselves, or maybe, you know, we only keep it to ourselves. And so this moment, where we’re gonna say those parts out loud, I think the culture was really, really ripe for that.
Douglas: In one of the interviews that you did, you talked about some concern that somebody would ask you to make it less black. But I guess ultimately, that request never came through.
Philyaw: My reason for being concerned was because I heard from other writers, this idea of writing to a white audience and trying to make sure that white people could access the stories. Again, I listened to Toni Morrison and August Wilson, who said, white people can access stories about black people without us having to translate culture, you know. I mean, what do any of us do when we encounter a word or a phrase or something? We look it up. As a friend of mine, another writer from Jacksonville, says she writes so that the people who she’s writing about can understand these words. It’s not about translating for anyone. I knew that there would be that pressure in the industry as a whole. And I’d heard that from individual writers. And so I assumed that I would be confronted with that as well. But thankfully, I wasn’t.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was recently published by West Virginia University Press.
This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.