Books

The Secret Life of Deesha Philyaw

Her debut book nearly swept this year’s literary awards. Why didn’t publishers want it?

Philyaw in a colorful dress smiling and looking skyward as she stands against a gray brick wall
Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Vanessa German

As a girl in Jacksonville, Florida, Deesha Philyaw imagined the sex lives of the grown Black women around her.

The churches Philyaw grew up attending—African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of God in Christ—all forbid sex before marriage. But what did the unmarried church ladies do? Did they masturbate? If they had secret sex, would they go to hell? And the married women: Did they enjoy sex? Were they as dull as they seemed, or did they live double lives? These questions, Philyaw knows now, were really about herself—about what possibilities were open to her, and what kind of woman she should be. Even then, she was keenly aware of the tensions between being human and being holy, between what women wanted and needed and what was expected of them.

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Years later, alone all day in the suburbs of Pittsburgh with a baby who wouldn’t nap, Philyaw found herself reckoning with the same tensions that had so occupied her in childhood. It was 2007. She’d made choices about what kind of woman to be—choices that many people, inside and outside the church, would deem both sensible and good. But those choices did not bring her joy, or even satisfaction. “I thought I knew what I wanted,” she told me, “and then I got it and I was like, wait a minute.”

She needed something that was just hers. In stolen moments, she began to write fiction. “I was writing about these women who were dissatisfied because I was dissatisfied,” she recalled. “I gave my discontent to my characters.” One character, Olivia, had a particularly strong hold on her. As a child, Olivia believed that the pastor of her church was God. God stopped by to visit her mother on Mondays. From her mother’s bedroom, Olivia heard moaning and pounding. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” her mother cried. And God answered, “Yes, yes, yes!”

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Olivia’s mother had little time or patience for her, but every week, for her lover, she baked an entire pan of peach cobbler. Once, Olivia snuck into the kitchen and stuffed her face with handfuls of the cobbler, pulled from the garbage. Her mother caught her and called it stealing. Olivia’s desire for love and care, even from her own mother, was made shameful. The pastor, she learned, was not God. But as a man with money and power afforded by the religious patriarchy, his needs would always be prioritized.

Many women who grew up in church were taught to “tamp down what felt good,” Philyaw told me. “So you have secrets, shame, fear. I escaped mostly unscathed, but I was interested in the women who didn’t. How did they get free?”

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In 2020, Philyaw told Olivia’s story, along with eight others, in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her debut collection. The book, published by tiny West Virginia University Press, has taken fiction’s awards season by storm: Philyaw won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the $20,000 Story Prize, and the L.A. Times Award for First Fiction. Secret Lives was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Tessa Thompson’s production company acquired the collection for an HBO Max series; Philyaw will both executive produce and write. In the New York Times, Parul Sehgal wrote, “I keep loaning out copies … and having to order replacements.” This is the kind of acclaim that most books—much less a short-story collection, much less a debut, much less a debut collection published by a university press—never receive.

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Philyaw, for her part, worried that a book as “unapologetically Black” as hers might have difficulty even finding a publisher. Her stories are populated by Black people, are set within and adjacent to varied Southern Black church communities, and center the intellectual and emotional lives of Black women. In Philyaw’s buoyant diction, the rhythm of her language, her references, the details of her characters’ lives, is an unselfconscious Blackness, free of the need to contend with or accommodate a white omnipresence. Indeed, the shadow in these stories, the omnipresence Philyaw’s characters both love and struggle against, is Black. The powers that be are, for example, that philandering pastor, a fat-shaming mother, and a diary-snooping great-grandmother. In the story “Snowfall,” two women, exiled from their communities because they’re gay, nevertheless miss their mothers, grandmothers, and aunties desperately: “We miss how they made our Easter dresses and pound cakes and a way out of no way.”

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By plumbing Black desires and intimacies, Philyaw conjures a depth of relationship and emotion that can be universally understood and felt. Indeed, while Tessa Thompson told me that she is adapting Secret Lives for television because “getting to see Black tenderness is still such a rarefied thing,” it also seemed to her that the themes in Philyaw’s stories “are so incredibly universal.”

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“It matters that these women are Black,” Philyaw said, “but there are also connection points for people who are not Black. We don’t have to erase Blackness to recognize the universality of Black stories.”

Philyaw went to Yale. For a first-generation college student from a working-class family, raised by her grandmother and single mother, college was not about exploration or self-discovery. It certainly was not about the arts. She didn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor, but business seemed like a career that would lead to financial stability, though she wasn’t sure what business meant in terms of an actual job. Since there wasn’t an undergraduate business degree at Yale, Philyaw majored in economics. She disliked it, so she fulfilled the minimum requirements and filled the rest of her course load with subjects that interested her—African studies and history.

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After graduation, she landed what seemed like a dream job, at a management consultancy. She made good money but cried every day on her way to work. Nine months in, without another job lined up, she quit. She got a master’s in teaching, and loved being in the classroom, but when she got married, she decided to stay at home to raise her children. That’s when she started writing fiction.

Years later, the end of her marriage brought with it an unexpected opportunity. Friends told her that she and her ex were such good co-parents that they should write a book about it. Through that book, Co-parenting 101, Philyaw gained an agent and a platform. She had allayed some of her own dissatisfaction, but she hadn’t given up on her dissatisfied women. Her agent saw promise in her short stories, and she was the person who first called them church ladies.

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But despite her agent’s encouragement, Philyaw braced herself: for outright rejection, perhaps, or for editors asking her to make her book less Black. “I was the one who would have to live with it,” she said. “I needed it to be a book I loved.”

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“In advocating for Deesha,” Philyaw’s agent, Danielle Chiotti, told me, “it was crucial to make sure that the truth of her stories was allowed to shine.”

Chiotti targeted a wide range of editors, from the big five New York trade publishers to smaller presses. For the first month, rejections rolled in. Many employed that time-honored publishing boilerplate: Philyaw’s collection, editors said, just wasn’t a good fit for their houses. “It’s hard,” said Chiotti, “not to wonder what is really behind the phrase not a good fit.”

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A month after Secret Lives went out on submission, Chiotti received an offer from Derek Krissoff, the director of West Virginia University Press. “I loved [Secret Lives] right away,” Krissoff told me. He is committed to publishing diverse writers, he said, particularly those with connections to West Virginia and Appalachia. Pittsburgh, where Philyaw still lives, is 60 miles from the West Virginia University campus in Morgantown. Sara Georgi edited Secret Lives and said that, as an ex-evangelical, she was immediately drawn to the collection, which “speaks to my experience, and the experiences of many people I know.”

The conversation Philyaw had dreaded about making her book less Black never came. Georgi said that as a white woman editing a Black author’s work, she was aware of the possibility of causing harm, so she was determined to approach the process with humility: “I relied on and deferred to [Philyaw’s] expertise.” She noted that one advantage of working at a press that only publishes two or three fiction titles a year amid the more typical university-press collection of academic books is that the publisher is less driven by conventional notions of marketability, which often privilege white authors and stories.

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Secret Lives is the most commercially successful book WVU Press has ever published, having sold around 30,000 copies in a little over six months. For a press with only five employees, that’s a challenge. “The initial excitement when [Secret Lives] was named to the longlist for the National Book Awards definitely included an element of terror,” Krissoff said. But the press’s team used several printers to speed along reprints, and Krissoff says he’s proud that “a flyspeck university press in West Virginia can publish at the highest level.”

Jennifer Baker, a senior editor at Amistad and an advocate for diversity in publishing, noted that enthusiasm for Philyaw’s work was strong among Black writers even before her book was published. “Everyone was talking about her” when the stories first appeared in literary journals, Baker said. “That support cannot be discounted.” “Awards attention has absolutely driven sales,” Krissoff said, “but I think the positive word-of-mouth, embrace of the title on social media, and virtual events with bookstores and festivals have done at least as much.”

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Both Krissoff and Baker emphasized that, while Philyaw’s prize sweep is unusual, she’s not the first literary writer to make a splash with a university press book. Rion Amilcar Scott won the PEN/Bingham Prize for his collection Insurrections, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2016. In 2019, Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib, published by the University of Texas Press, was a New York Times bestseller and longlisted for the National Book Award. How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker, published by Ohio State University Press, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for nonfiction. All of these titles, it’s worth noting, are by Black authors. Baker observed that while efforts to champion diverse books exist at all levels of publishing, the industry remains white-dominant. Black writers, she said, “have to go with our guts.”

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For Philyaw, the groundswell of love Secret Lives has received from readers, critics, and prize judges came as a joyful and validating surprise. She hopes that her story can both encourage other Black writers who are struggling with rejection and push the publishing world to invest in Black stories: “It’s important for me to talk about how my book got rejected,” she told me.

“The acclaim for this story collection gives Deesha freedom,” Chiotti said. “She gets to decide where she most wants to direct her creative energy.” Philyaw is currently working on a novel and the pilot for the HBO adaptation. She is also searching for a new city to call home, recently writing in Bloomberg CityLab, “I’m ready for a place where Black thriving is by design.”

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Philyaw’s stories are very much about freedom—its costs, its shifting boundaries and definitions, the ways in which our conceptions of freedom are reduced and distorted in a world where power is often defined as the ability to control and subjugate others. Olivia, that first dissatisfied woman, resurfaces in a second story in Secret Lives, as the author of an instructional guide for the married Christian husbands over whom she wields power. “My reasons for wanting you are predicated on your hunger,” Olivia writes in that guide. “Don’t ruin this for me by acting like a lovelorn teenager.” Philyaw loves the question that story begs about Olivia: “Did she get free?” There is no easy answer.

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Philyaw is reflective about achieving so many professional dreams during what has been—from the pandemic to the ongoing police violence against Black people—an agonizing year: “I’m really happy for all the success, but I still have to take care of myself and my kids and be a citizen of the world.” While there are freedoms—urgent, necessary freedoms—that can be achieved by striving toward fulfilling private, sometimes secret, desires, there are also freedoms that can only be won through collective struggle. That truth too is at the heart of the conflicts in Secret Lives. How free can any of us be, Philyaw’s stories ask, when the people we love—even the ones who break our hearts—are not free?

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