By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
How do you understand both the joy and pain of tangled mother-daughter relationships? What do you learn through relationships marked by intergenerational trauma? What is the nature of female sexuality? And how do Black women steeped in the church own and express their desire? What do lives lived within parameters approved by that church feel like? And what does all of that look like when you are a Black woman in America, circa 2020?
Deesha Philyaw doesn’t have any easy answers for these intricate challenges, but she has stories and, man, the stories she tells. ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,’ released this month by WVU Press, is her new collection of nine short-stories, full of lived-in humanity, warmth and compassion.
Philyaw’s stories are all told from the female perspective, with a throughline of church ladies, or women who are ‘church lady adjacent.’
“Basic definition — church ladies are women who are or were rooted in the church, raised in the church, attended church. The things they learned at church shaped and influenced how they live their lives and how they continue to define themselves as women,” she explained. “And their sexuality — not exclusively their sexuality, but in part. So you can be a church lady and not really be in church. Which means you’re probably, what I call, church lady adjacent: there is still someone in your life who is a church lady who influences you.”
It feels like Philyaw is always at work creating; her talents take her to all kinds of places. The co-editor of ‘Tender’ with Vanessa German, she also writes memoir and is working on a novel. With this collection of short stories, she demonstrates that she is the Bo Jackson of writing. (Though she notes that she doesn’t write poetry, “That’s not my lane, that’s not my ministry.”)
She often grapples with grief, loss and trauma, with what it means to be family, with damaged relationships, with sexuality and what all of that looks like from the perspective of the Black christian church. There are stories like ‘Jael’ and ‘Snowfall’ which explore tough intergenerational relationships. [The latter story has one of the great lead lines in the collection: “Black women aren’t meant to shovel snow.”]
If that sounds heavy, well, some of it is. But she also tells stories where love is expressed through food (kitchens are primary spots) and stories inspired by internet memes and discourse.
“I was joking with a friend of mine about how messy affairs are. There should be a school for women who have affairs with married men — like side-chick academy,” Philyaw said of a conversation that turned into ‘Instructions for Married Christian Husbands.’
“We were joking but it’s not funny — it is always the women battling with each other and, meanwhile, the guy, it’s like he’s not even there. Even though he’s the reason. I thought, what if the instructions would be for the guy … this woman takes the upper hand and teaches men how to be in affairs, specifically married Christian men.”
Philyaw’s gifts for breezy dialogue shapes ‘Dear Sister,’ an epistolary tale of sisters inviting another half-sister into their fold. It is voicey and funny and warm in all the best ways. For that, she drew on real-life experience, when she and her sisters did reach out to a half-sister who hadn’t been around.
“We knew she existed. So we called grandma and said, ‘what’s our sister’s name?’ These are the weird conversations that I sometimes think only Black people have,” she laughed.
The story ‘Peach Cobbler’ feels its way through the relationship between an exceptionally detached mother and her daughter. There is a perverse sort of protective parenting going on, which is to say, a mother who is preparing her daughter for a life bereft of joy, contentment, or love. With every interaction, she teaches her child to not expect happiness.
“It’s not like the mother was self-aware enough to know she’s so cold. There was definitely something in her own past, in the way that she was mothered, that created that distance,” Philyaw said. Written from the daughter’s perspective, this harsh emotional austerity is not explained, but trauma suffuses every sentence.
According to Philyaw. “Somewhere along the way, it was not modeled for her how to mother. In her brokenness, this is what she did. I was going to say, that’s the best she could do, but I don’t know that is the best she could do, even given her own brokenness.”
These are all the voices of church ladies. The church can be limiting and oppressive but it can also be a place of comfort and community, of strength and genuine affection. In “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” Deesha Philyaw gives you voices full of those contradictions and complexity, love and longing, that were previously hidden from view.