The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw


I was thunderstruck by this wonderful book and have listened to it again. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Philyaw brings you into the intimacies of the lives of these black women with just a few words and uses a variety of storytelling approaches to do so. Some are first person narratives. In “Eula” the narrator Caroletta tells of her long-time friendship with Eula which became sexual on occasions such as New Year’s Eve when the two teachers reserve a suite two towns over, bring in food and three bottles of Asti Spumonte. Eula doesn’t quite recognize their relationship, regards herself as a virgin, and hasn’t given up on finding a husband.

One of my favorites, “Dear Sister” was in the form of a letter; five sisters whose father had just died learn there is a sixth sister they have never met. This letter, written by Michelle, introduces each of them and describes their various alliances and disputes. Only one will defend the no-good father. Michelle tells about all the food that friends and neighbors brought and says that as they were eating,

Grandma says, “Which one y’all pregnant?” She waved a chicken leg around like a pointer. “I dreamed about fish near ’bout every night this week.” We’ve been hearing about fishy dreams all our lives. With seven children, 19 grandchildren, including you, eight great-grands, and 3 great-great-grands, grandma has dreamed about fish a lot. “Somebody ’round here pregnant,” she muttered…..Grandma’s fishy dreams announced the existence of every one of her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.

The letter ends with a P.S. “Grandma wants to know if you’re pregnant.”

One story, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” uses the second person point of view to describe how the protagonist will meet a man at a conference and the long and arduous path she takes over the course of months to letting this worthy man into her life. This was a very sweet and satisfying tale.

Another tells of two people who meet in a hospice setting as they spend time with their dying mothers. They meet in her car, first to cry together, talk about the mundane aspects of this process, then to adjourn to the back seat for “relief.” The title of this one is “Not-Daniel,” which is how the narrator refers to her partner-in-grief. When she first saw him, she thought he was someone she had known in school named Daniel.

Then there’s the scary 14-year-old Jael, who lives with her great-grandmother. The two take turns narrating the story. The grandmother stops taking Jael to church when she reads in her diary about her “unholy” interest in the preacher’s wife. Jael’s cold eyes were like the grandmother’s daughter Timna’s eyes. Timna showed no sadness at the death of her friend when they were 16; that death takes on a more sinister aspect after a mysterious death and a fall the grandmother works hard to explain to herself.

Part of the magic of this book was the reader, Janina Edwards.

Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, West Virginia University Press, 2020, 189 pages. Available in the public library.

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