Published by Pushkin Press Genres: African American & Black, Collections & Anthologies, Fiction, Gay, LGBTQ, Short Stories
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is an excellent collection of nine short stories written by Deesha Philyaw. The stories feature black women that are attempting to fulfill desires and passions that are at odds with their Christian beliefs and standards. This National Book Award Finalist is a delight to read and features excellent writing and many queer characters. Readers will meet the daughter of a woman having an affair with a pastor, a mistress’ humorous set of guidelines for her married lovers, and a teenager who has a crush on the preacher’s wife. These stories cover women from multiple generations, sexualities, and relationship statuses. I chose to read this book when I discovered my Deesha Philyaw would be speaking at my favorite bookstore, People Get Ready in New Haven, CT.
My favorite story is Peach Cobbler. This story focuses on a complex mother-daughter relationship. Olivia’s mom is having an affair with the preacher. Her mom cooks peach cobbler for the preacher, but never allows her daughter to enjoy her legendary desert. Olivia decides to replicate her mom’s peach cobbler for herself. Peach cobbler is one of my favorite deserts, so the vivid descriptions of the food in this story had my mouth watering. How to Make Love to a Physicist was a charming romance. The main conflict was not between the protagonist and her love interest. Instead, the conflict revolved around the protagonist learning to love herself. By the time I reached the end of the story in the back of my mind I heard Ru Paul’s legendary words of wisdom: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” In Dear Sister the strong bond between the sisters and their different personalities reminded me of my mom and her three sisters. Deesha perfectly captures the loving, yet brutally honest interactions within an adult sisterhood. Deesha’s characters feel authentic and believable, and her writing is a joy to read.
I was so fortunate to hear Deesha Philyaw speak at the Elm City LIT Fest in New Haven, CT this past September. I really enjoyed listening to Deesha describe her writing process and the inspiration behind the stories in the collection. She explained how food played a large role in the stories. Her grandma would never say the words “I love you”, but she’d cook her family delicious food to show love. She highlighted the use of food in her favorite story in the collection, How to Make Love to a Physicist. Deesha wanted to make sure the protagonist’s quest for self-love included cooking whole, non-processed foods. She wanted mother-daughter relationships to be a focus of the collection. Deesha explained how mothers pass down the church’s culture to their daughters, both the good and bad parts. One of my favorite moments was when Deesha told us that envisioned that Olivia from Peach Cobbler grew up to be the serial mistress in Instructions for Married Christian Husbands. When the authors were discussing the process for selecting character names, Deesha explained the biblical significance of Jael’s name, which is key to that story. This was my first time hearing attending a talk by an author and I had so much fun! I appreciated the collection even more after hearing Deesha speak.
I can’t recommend The Secret Lives of Church Ladies enough! I implore you to put this at the top of your TBR immediately! This is one of my favorite reads of the year, and a reminder for me to read more short stories. This cohesive collection has excellent writing and unforgettable characters. I’m looking forward to seeing Tessa Thompson’s adaptation of this anthology on HBO, what a great pairing of artists!
Please check out People Get Ready in New Haven, CT!