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Pittsburgh-Based Author Deesha Philyaw Wins Major Fiction Award

Photo by Vanessa German
Courtesy of Deesha Philyaw
Deesha Philyaw is winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Pittsburgh-based author Deesha Philyaw won the prestigious PEN/Faulker Award for Fiction on Tuesday. Philyaw, one of five finalists, won the prize for her acclaimed debut short-story collection, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies," which explores the experiences of Black women.

"I wrote The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters who are all, in some way, striving to get free," Philyaw said in a statement. "Winning this award during a time of unconscionable loss, grief, and injustice, I’m reminded just how tenuous our freedom is. I’m reminded of and encouraged by Toni Morrison’s words: ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’ On the other side of this time of reckoning and the fight ahead, may we all be free.”

The PEN/Faulker Award dates to 1981. Past winners include Philip Roth, Ann Patchett, Don DeLillo, and John Edgar Wideman and comes with a $15,000 prize. Philyaw will be honored at a May 10 virtual ceremony.

“[W]e are confident that Deesha Philyaw’s short story collection is a book that people will be reading and talking about and learning from for many years to come,” said PEN/Faulkner Awards Committee chair Louis Bayard in a statement.

In their statement, judges Charles Finch, Bernice L. McFadden, and Alexi Zentner called the collection “masterful,” and wrote, “Deesha Philyaw speaks in the funny, tender, undeceived voices of her title characters, who have more in common perhaps even than they know, from love to loss to God. In the group portrait that emerges, Philyaw gives us that rarest and most joyful fusion – a book that combines the curious agility of the best short fiction with the deep emotional coherence of a great novel.”

Philyaw has also written about race, parenting, gender, and culture in outlets including The New York Times, McSweeney’s, Harvard Review, ESPN’s The Undefeated, Ebony, and Bitch. She is co-author, with her ex-husband, of the book “Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce.”

Here’s WESA’s interview with Philyaw around the time of the book’s publication, in September.

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Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: