Two women, lifelong friends, consummate their yearly hotel-room assignation on the eve of Y2K. A man and a woman, near-strangers, have sex in a car outside the hospice where both their mothers are dying. A woman writes a long letter to her sister, who never knew their wayward father, who just died. A girl grows up understanding, but forbidden to speak about, her mother’s years-long affair with their pastor – and then becomes close to the pastor’s wife and teen-aged son.
Those are just the first four short stories in “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” (West Virginia University Press). The debut collection by Pittsburgh-based writer and educator Deesha Philyaw explores the social, psychological, sexual and spiritual lives of Black women and girls. It’s gotten national press, with glowing notices from the likes of Ms. Magazine (“cheeky, insightful and irresistible”) and Kirkus Reviews (“tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful”).
The nine stories, while not strictly autobiographical, are rooted in Philyaw’s experiences as a Black woman who grew up in the South – in her case, Jacksonville, Fla. – and the Black church. “Church ladies,” she said, is a catchall for women she knew growing up, many of them churched, others understood in the context of their relationship to a church where they didn't worship. Today she recalls, “especially as an adolescent, sort of looking around at them as sort of templates for who I might be someday.”
The women who were in church, she said, didn’t present as sexual beings; women not of the church who expressed sensuality were seen as “outside of the will of God.” The experiences beneath their surfaces – the sexual lives of church ladies, the spiritual struggles of the unchurched – make up much of “Secret Lives,” which also includes the winsome romance “How to Make Love To A Physicist” and “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands,” a satirical takedown of hypocritical men, written from the perspective of an independent-minded paramour.
All the characters also either live in or are from the South. “For Black Americans in general, you know, this is where our roots were,” said Philyaw. “I think of the South as a very, very Black place.” It’s also the place, she said, where Black Americans were introduced to Christianity – and the intertwining strands of comfort, freedom, and restrictiveness that have marked Black folks’ relationship with the church ever since.
Philyaw’s resume includes writing on 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.”
“Secret Lives” ranges across generations, and explores the complexity of family and community. In “Peach Cobbler,” the narrator’s mother’s baked treat – which is practically lusted after by that adulterous preacher – becomes a metaphor for not only the narrator’s own craving for attention, but also for her loyalty to multiple characters in the story. In “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” the narrator grapples with her relationship with her mother – a dyed-in-the-wool church lady – alongside her concept of God and her body-image issues. Even the latter are rooted in church, said Philyaw.
“Her mother also represents the church, and this idea of propriety, and this idea of smallness and confinement that is often put on women in the church,” she said. “You know, you have to look a certain way. So you've got to suck your stomach. That's something that many of us are taught: Holding in your stomach because God forbid, you know, your stomach stick out.”
The story is one of personal growth. “Instead of having a guy that she is interested in and who is interested in her, you know, come along and make it all better, she kind of sabotages that relationship in the beginning,” Philyaw adds. “But in the process, like while she's sort of holding him at arm's length, she's looking in a mirror and she is working on releasing herself from those confinements.”
The narrator in at least one story, however, is introduced as already self-actualized. “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” is a list of rules for aspiring adulterers, written by a prospective mistress.
“I just wanted to play with flipping that narrative, the usual narrative we have around the women who are the secrets,” Philyaw said. “And so what if instead, you know, a woman like that took the upper hand and controlled the narrative?”