By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Senior Contributor
It doesn’t often happen that a collection of short stories is a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s even less likely to happen when that collection is the first such collection by an author, and when it was published by a University Press, rather than one of the big houses in New York. But anybody who underestimates Pittsburgh author Deesha Philyaw does so at their own peril.
Philyaw’s 2020 collection, ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ from West Virginia University Press is one of five finalists for the National Book Award this year. Though it must be said that even Philyaw herself didn’t expect this reaction. She wasn’t even thinking about it when the long-list was released by the National Book Foundation. She got a message from a friend to let her know that her book was one of the ten that was longlisted. Philyaw had no words for the feeling — she just started screaming. (She later apologized to her neighbors who might have thought she was being attacked.)
She was more prepared when her book was named one of the five finalists, but still, she really didn’t see any of this coming.
“It’s a little collection. It’s short-stories. It’s with a University press. It’s little, you know? I had no expectations,” Philyaw told the Pittsburgh Current.
“I was happy that it was in the world. I wanted the stories and the characters to be affirming for Black women. And it has been. It’s also been affirming for a lot of other folks, as well. That was it. I really just wanted to tell Black women’s stories.”
She does that with wit and style and a deep humanity which is the very soul of the book. Still, ‘Church Ladies’ is definitely a book that came through the outsider track, according to Derek Krissoff, the director of WVU Press.
“This is a first work of fiction. It’s a story collection, which has the reputation of not doing as well as novels. So it’s got some things going against it, but we knew that we could do well with it,” Krissoff said.
Deehsa Philyaw has done a little bit of every kind of writing there is. Just a few months prior to the release of ‘Church Ladies,’ she curated and edited the collection, ‘tender,’ along with Vanessa German. Her essay in that book, “Whiting,” is about a meal that her father prepared for her which is about so much more than pan-fried fish.
Unlike that story, these are fiction. Some, like “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” start with a flight of fancy on the part of the author. Others are born of her own experiences. The feeling of being lost at sea while tending to a dying mother carries the reader through “Not-Daniel,” and is very much born of a lived-in, gutting experience.
Each story builds upon the last and while each one can stand on its own right, collected together here, they are greater than the sum of the parts.
“The first story I really felt needed to be ‘Eula,'” Philyaw said about putting the collection in order. “Because it is so in your face — it hits you with all the themes of the book right up front. It’s got sex in it. People could read that first and see what they were getting into — see if they were going to ride with me or not. That was important.”
The story that closes the collection, “When Eddie Levert Comes Home,” takes the reader out with what Philyaw describes as a sigh. All the way in between, Philyaw explores all the spaces — the wild and tender, the heartbreaking and loving experiences — of Black women. We’re just coming off election seasons when groups of people are thought of as monoliths, but Philyaw’s work reminds us that, while there are commonalities, everybody has their own story, their own sexuality, their own baggage, and their own take. Even her satirical pieces are written with a unique kindness.
“Satire is mocking and you have to gaze at something in order to mock it. We gaze at things we like, and things we love. If you’re going to do satire well, there has to be that element of love,” she said.
In the insular world of books awards, where big publishing houses rule, it is exhilarating to see not one, but two university presses represented this year. In addition to Philyaw being a finalist in fiction, Jerald Walker’s ‘How to Make a Slave, and Other Essays,’ from Ohio State University Press is a finalist for the non-fiction National Book Award.
“We knew that we could do well with it. And that’s a mission for us, too. Because we’re a university press, because we’re not for profit,” Krissoff said of working with a talent like Philyaw.
“It’s exciting for us when things succeed commercially, but we also feel it’s important to amplify voices of folks who may not get the same sort of access to those commercial outlets. When it all aligns, as in Deesha’s case, it’s all to the good. But we did this because we were just excited by it.”
The National Book Awards ceremony will be held as an online event this year on November 18. But no worries, Deesha Philyaw is going to be going in full-on Oscar red-carpet splendor.