This book was recommended to me by Amazon. That’s right. It popped up on my kindle as, “you may be interested in,” while purchasing a different book. I found the title compelling so I clicked, then I found the description of the book interesting, so I purchased. I was not disappointed. It has been a long time since I read a collection of short stories I could not put down and wanted to read all over again once I’d finished. Philyaw’s writing is downright addictive.
Philyaw’s voice is powerful and assertive, strong and confident, and also, a bit mischievous, almost playfully leading the reader along in these stories which vary in theme, subject and style. The descriptions are crisp and fresh. The writing is squeaky clean. In the difficult subjects, the writing never devolves into sentimentality though one’s heart may be breaking. The authority of this writer lets us know that we are to stand in respect to all of it: all the survival, all the strength, all the perseverance, all the joy and all the pain. There is a lot of contradiction to hold, especially around the lives of the sweet, smiley, hat wearing church ladies, predatory pastors, abusive and homophobic mothers, (many of whom are also church ladies), absent fathers, addiction, poverty, and ostracization. Then there are the narrating victims: adult children trying to come to terms with their experiences, in communities where their families have been victimized by the culture at large for generations.
The stories are told by or about black women in all their variety while navigating the many intersections of race, class, poverty, sexism, sexuality, spirituality, southern blacks and northern blacks and and the misrepresentations and misinterpretations of it all.
“Dear Sister,” is a letter written to a half-sister upon the death of their shared father. The sister receiving the letter never knew the father or about the half-sister writing the letter. The letter writer asks:
“Is it better to have the one big hurt of your father not being around and not all those little hurts that come when he disappoints you? Or is it better to have a piece of a father, hurts and all?”(Philyaw 24).
The story “Peach Cobbler” is so good. Philyaw has a way of showing a situation so that the reader is able to feel the wretchedness yet remain compassionate. The single mother in this story is having a very long-term affair with the married pastor of their church. He comes over most Mondays and eats an entire pan of peach cobbler, specially made for him by the mother, before making love to her. We watch the mother greedily hang on to this shell of a relationship at the expense to her relationship with her daughter.
“Pastor Neeley sat at the table, hunched over. It was a Monday. He looked up from his plate of cobbler and said hello in that fake, forced way that drags out the o— the way people say it when they don’t enjoy talking to children. I said hello back, and he went right back to his cobbler. He ate surprisingly small spoonfuls, slowly. His full lips, slightly parted and glistening, made me think of the kissing I saw on TV and the movies. The spoon practically disappeared in his bear paw of a hand. His fingers resembled the thick sausages my mother made for breakfast sometimes on Sunday morning”(Philyaw 43).
The peach cobbler the mother makes, which the daughter, Olivia, is forbidden to consume, represents a carrying on of her culture which the mother withholds from Olivia yet uses as leverage with the hypocritical lover. One Monday, when the pastor does not show up for his anticipated visit, instead of sharing the cobbler with her daughter, the mother throws it away. In bed, Olivia can think of nothing else so when she assumes her mother is asleep, she sneaks out to the kitchen and eats it out of the trash.
“I grabbed a handful of the cobbler and shoved it all in my mouth at once. The sugary juice dribbled over the corner of my mouth down to my chin as I chewed. I savored the peaches and the soft bits of crust soaked through with the syrup. Nothing had ever tasted so good. From memory, I pictured every movement of my mother’s hands. How she dunked the peaches in boiling water, then ran them under cold tap water to slide the peels off. The easy way she wielded the knife to slice the peaches. The care she took to drain canned peaches when Georgia peaches were out of season.
I wanted to be those peaches. I longed to be handled by caring hands. And if I couldn’t, I wanted the next best thing: to make something so wonderful with my own hands”(Philyaw 48).
In her article, “Strong and Certain: On Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in the LA Times, Renee Simms comments that:
“Like many characters in this compelling story collection, the gifts that women possess don’t pay off in the ways that they should. This is one source of their sadness and loneliness, which are some of the main themes within the book. And it rings true about the lives of contemporary Black women. We can be academically brilliant, great lovers, and incomparable cooks, but too often what we have to offer is exploited by others within our own communities. Like Olivia’s mother, many Black women end up brilliant, but used up and alone.
Philyaw’s stories examine this exploitation and its relationship to heterosexual marriage and the Black church. Both institutions are the subtext of her stories, if not in the present action. In this way, Philyaw’s fiction stands within a tradition of writing that’s about the beauty and burden of Black life within oppressive social systems” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/strong-and-certain-on-deesha-philyaws-the-secret-lives-of-church-ladies/).
In “Peach Cobbler,” the story becomes more and more complicated as time goes by with the mother and her lover eventually making a choice that benefits each of them but is very thoughtless and proves unhealthy for Olivia. Acquiescing to their choice and request, Olivia is led into a situation that leads to cruel betrayal as she painfully realizes the reality of her own class and place in society. It’s heartbreaking. But man do I want some of that cobbler.
Olivia pledges to never be like her mother but later in the book, in the story, “Instructions For Married Christian Husbands,” it seems we meet her again as an adult, and sure, she is not like the mother but…we are not sure her choice is better … or is it?
Deesha Philyaw lives in Pittsburgh, PA and is the author of many articles on co-parenting and divorce. Her book, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Visit her at deeshaphilyaw.com
In other stories like, “How To Make Love To A Physicist,” and “Snowfall,” we find ourselves celebrating the “happy ending.”
In “How To Make Love To A Physicist,” the main character longs for a relationship yet her fears keep her from allowing it for herself. Philyaw tells this story in the second person with lively rhythm, energetic scene changes and power packed moments interspersed with profound and raw exposure of the main character’s inner life. It’s so good while at the same time deep, meaningful and painfully familiar to most women.
“How do you make love to physicist? You start to have sex dreams about him, very, very detailed sex dreams. For the first time in your life, you crave sex. For the first time, you are curious about a man’s body, about how you will feel above and beneath him.
But then you remember the sex you’ve had, and how you had to disappear into yourself to endure it. How you thought about your stomach and your thighs the whole time, wishing you were someone else, imagining he was wishing the same. How sex, for you, was just a way to be touched, a means to an end. How all you ever really wanted was to be touched. But men always want more”(Philyaw 108).
And then we celebrate at the end when she begins to gain ground on these societal and cultural pressures that have almost smothered her into disappearance and allows herself to have her life and to have love and happiness.
“How do you make love to a physicist? Forget you home training. Ditch the girdles your mother taught you to wear to harness your belly, your butt, your thighs, your freedom. God forbid something jiggle. God forbid you are soft and unbridled.
Sleep naked”(Philyaw 109).
These women are powerful and glorious and human and admirable.
Let’s be very clear: writing a good short story is extremely difficult. One must do so much with so little time and space. To begin to get a plot in a short story that keeps the reader moving forward is difficult stuff. Also, to get a strong voice in that short a time and to get the reader engaged in the story and invested in the characters is all a skill that not many have. But Philyaw has mastered the form and we all get to benefit.
Deesha Philyaw is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Philyaw, Deesha. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. West Virginia University Press, 2020.
Simms, Renee. “Strong and Certain: On Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. LA Times.(https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/strong-and-certain-on-deesha-philyaws-the-secret-lives-of-church-ladies/).