From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Strong and Certain: On Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”
Date September 23, 2021 12:00 AM
  Links have been removed from this email. Learn more in the FAQ.
  Links have been removed from this email. Learn more in the FAQ.
[This award-winning collection of short stories, writes reviewer
Simms, "stands within a tradition of writing that’s about the beauty
and burden of Black life within oppressive social systems."]
[[link removed]]


[[link removed]]


Renee Simms
November 12, 2020
Los Angeles Review of Books
[[link removed]]

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]

_ This award-winning collection of short stories, writes reviewer
Simms, "stands within a tradition of writing that’s about the beauty
and burden of Black life within oppressive social systems." _



The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Deesha Philyaw
West Virginia University Press
ISBN: 978-1-949199-74-1

IN “PEACH COBBLER,” which is the fourth story in Deesha
Philyaw’s debut collection of short stories, _The Secret Lives of
Church Ladies_, Olivia tells the reader how she became “a student of
[her] mother and her cobbler-making ways.” Olivia’s mother makes
cobbler once a week from scratch, the recipe committed to her memory.
She’s the kind of baker who can add the right portion of ingredients
by simply looking and without using measuring cups. By all accounts,
the mother’s cobbler is delicious. The married pastor of their
church comes to Olivia’s home each week to eat an entire pan of the
dessert, then retreat with her mother into a bedroom that she and her
mother share. Years later, while the affair is still going on, a
teenage Olivia makes her mother’s cobbler and gives it to the
pastor’s wife and son, whom the narrator has recently tutored. They,
too, say the cobbler is the best they’ve ever had. What is
disturbing about the story, in addition to the betrayals enacted by a
decade-long affair, is the exploitation of the mother’s talent for
caregiving and how it’s passed on to her daughter. Like many
characters in this compelling story collection, the gifts that women
possess don’t pay off in the ways that they should. This is one
source of their sadness and loneliness, which are some of the main
themes within the book. And it rings true about the lives of
contemporary Black women. We can be academically brilliant, great
lovers, and incomparable cooks, but too often what we have to offer is
exploited by others within our own communities. Like Olivia’s
mother, many Black women end up brilliant, but used up and alone.

Philyaw’s stories examine this exploitation and its relationship to
heterosexual marriage and the Black church. Both institutions are the
subtext of her stories, if not in the present action. In this way,
Philyaw’s fiction stands within a tradition of writing that’s
about the beauty and burden of Black life within oppressive social
systems. Toni Morrison’s _Beloved_ is a classic example, as well as
recent novels like _An American Marriage_ by Tayari Jones, which looks
at marriage within the carceral state, and _The Turner House_ by
Angela Flournoy, about family dynamics as they bump against injustices
in the housing industry. As I read _The Secret Lives of Church
Ladies_, I was also reminded of the 2019 memoir _The World According
to Fannie Davis_ by Bridgett M. Davis. That book details a
mother-daughter relationship within an underground economy in which
the mother works. Like Davis, Philyaw is interested in relationships
between mothers and daughters, what’s passed on, rejected, and
learned. And like the characters in _Go Tell It on the Mountain_ by
James Baldwin, _A Visitation of Spirits _by Randall Kenan, and
_Mourner’s Bench_ by Sanderia Faye, Philyaw’s characters struggle
with gender and sexuality norms prescribed by the Black church.

“Peach Cobbler,” for example, makes clear how religious patriarchy
functions in its young narrator’s mind. Olivia’s been taught to
worship men. “Even before he started coming by on Mondays,” Olivia
tells us, “I had suspected that Pastor Neely, the pastor of Hope in
Christ Baptist Church, was God. He was big, black and powerful, as I
imagined God to be.” In “Dear Sister,” about a deadbeat dad who
has recently died, one of the deceased’s estranged daughters
challenges the wisdom of Exodus 20:12. “_Honor thy father_?”
Tasheta yelled. “When did that motherfucker ever honor you? Or me?
Or Kimba? Or Nichelle? Or anybody but his own trifling self? I ain’t
honoring shit.” Both stories offer complicated scenes of gender
dynamics as having been shaped by religious thinking and texts. Not so
in “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands.” Here, the female
narrator is clearly the one with power and the married Christian men
who cheat with her are “infantilized husbands” and pawns in her
game. If these characters seem less nuanced than those in other
stories, it’s because the driving engine of this story is its
structure, and not its character. Using the form of an instructional
guide, the story is a satirical examination of the rules one must
follow to pull off this type of tryst. The flatter characters serve
the purpose of the satire and its message.

But in most of the stories, religion has not made things clear. In
three stories, “Jael,” “Snowfall,” and “Eula,” women
struggle to love other women because it’s forbidden by the church
and their families. “As I walked out her front door for the last
time,” the narrator Lee says of leaving her mother’s home, “she
hurled the words at my back: ‘Running off from here with some _girl_
you met on the internet. Who raised you?’” Being raised right
means you aspire toward marriage with a man. Loving another woman
means you have a “reprobate mind.”

So, what are the secret lives of church ladies? In the final story,
it’s the daydream of a love affair with Eddie Levert. This is what
Mama looks forward to each day as she slips further into dementia.
Daughter is there braiding Mama’s hair and making room for this
ridiculous daydream and its rituals. Like all of the stories, this one
breaks your heart because the loneliness and estrangement between the
characters is palpable. Still, they find ways to care for each other,
and Philyaw writes the scenes of caregiving without sentimentality.
Her characters create intimacy and have hope, not despite their ugly
odds but because of them. It’s why, in the midst of her dementia and
pain, Mama’s singing voice is “strong and certain” — the last
words of the final story and an apt description for this collection.

Renee Simms’s work appears or is forthcoming in _Guernica_, _Oxford
American_, _Callaloo_, _Ecotone_, and elsewhere, and her debut story
collection _Meet Behind Mars_ was an Indies Foreword finalist and
listed by _The Root_ as one of 28 brilliant books by Black authors in
2018. She’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the
Arts, Ragdale, Vermont Studio Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’

[[link removed]]
[[link removed]]
* [[link removed]]







Submit via web [[link removed]]
Submit via email
Frequently asked questions [[link removed]]
Manage subscription [[link removed]]
Visit [[link removed]]

Twitter [[link removed]]

Facebook [[link removed]]



[link removed]

To unsubscribe from the xxxxxx list, click the following link:
[link removed]
Screenshot of the email generated on import

Message Analysis

  • Sender: Portside
  • Political Party: n/a
  • Country: United States
  • State/Locality: n/a
  • Office: n/a
  • Email Providers:
    • L-Soft LISTSERV