Deesha Philyaw on Why Her Book Should Not Have Succeeded
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
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 Book Dreams co-hosts Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, 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.
From the episode:
Deesha Philyaw: Church became something I would do with the neighborhood kids. You know, everybody went to church. You were supposed to go to church. But I always had these questions, because all these binaries were just so confusing, being in the church or out of the church. You know, women and all of these rules and all of these prohibitions around sex and what you could wear and what you could do. And it always looked like the women outside of the church were having the most fun. [chuckles] They were wearing the tight jeans and the heels, and I was like, “It’s so unfortunate. They’re going to hell.” So as a kid, it’s like trying to reconcile these teachings that just don’t really align with what we know to be the nuance and the complexity of human experience.
Deesha Philyaw 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.
Book Dreams is a podcast for everyone who loves books and misses English class. Co-hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Each episode explores book-related topics you can’t stop thinking about—whether you know it yet or not.
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