“It always looked like the women outside of the church were having the most fun. They were wearing the tight jeans and the heels, and I was like, ‘It's so unfortunate. They're going to hell.’”
Even as a child, author Deesha Philyaw understood that church teachings about women and sexuality didn’t “really align with what we know to be the nuance and the complexity of human experience.” Now, in her debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha explores the struggle and liberation of women when they dare not to be good. In her conversation with Julie and Eve, Deesha describes the personal journey she took away from the Church and how she began to follow her own desires, just as the characters in her stories do. She discusses, too, why she is “adamant about … writing in a way where the only gaze is the Black gaze,” and how “we can write very culturally specific stories that other people who don't share those cultural specifics can still connect with. That's the beauty, that the more specific our stories, the more engrossing, the more powerful, and yet people who haven't lived those exact same lives can still find these entry points.” As Deesha explains, this is a book that, for many reasons, should not have succeeded. But it has, wildly, and this conversation illustrates why.
Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and will be the 2022-2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her writing about race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney's, The Rumpus, and Harvard Review. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. It was also a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. HBO Max is currently adapting the book for TV, with Tessa Thompson executive producing.
A special thank you to our friends at Miami Book Fair who coordinated this episode with Deesha. Miami Book Fair is an “eight day literary party” founded by Miami Dade College that’s been held every November in Miami, Florida, since 1984. The Fair plays host to more than 450 international authors reading and discussing their work, as well as more than 250 publishers and booksellers exhibiting and selling books, with special appearances by antiquarians showcasing signed first editions, original manuscripts, and other collectibles.
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Since you’re listening to Book Dreams, we’d like to suggest you also try other Podglomerate shows about literature, writing, and storytelling like Storybound and The History of Literature.