In this year of constriction and pain, juicy goodness bursts from every page of Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.” Philyaw is the author of several previous nonfiction books, and her essays about race, gender, parenting and culture have been published widely.
Each of the nine stories revolves around Black female characters, the Black church, and S-E-X: in particular, the tension between following rules in public and breaking them in private. As Eula, the title character of the first story, says to her same-time-next-year lover Caroletta, “Do you think God wants you, or anybody, to go untouched for decades and decades? For their whole lives? ... all those women at church who think they have to choose between pleasing God and something so basic, so human as being held and known in the most intimate way.” As Eula points out, women are making themselves miserable following rules handed down from one group of men to another.
In the stories that follow, infidelity, homosexuality, casual sex, age-inappropriate liaisons and lesbian lust for the preacher’s wife are among the flavors of flaunting that are explored.
Speaking of flavors, “My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.” This irresistible sentence opens the story “Peach Cobbler,” a standout among stars.
“Even when I was older and no longer believed that God and Reverend Neely were one and the same, I still longed to perfect the sweetness and textures of my mother’s cobbler.”
Even when eaten out of the garbage can, food is a source of pleasure and power for Philyaw’s women, and equal to sex, whether it’s blue crabs, banana pudding, fried chicken, potato salad or sushi.
And then the story “How to Make Love to a Physicist” reckons with the issue of obesity, which is holding back the narrator from fully engaging in a perfect romance. Her therapist’s advice is to stop wearing a girdle and learn to love the body she has by giving herself pleasure in every way possible, including ones that involve caramelized Brussels sprouts. When her mother, appalled, says she can’t go to church without a girdle — well, she just stops going to church.
While continually acknowledging the importance of the church in the Black community, Philyaw sees the contradictions it creates with clarity, sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious. From the final story, “When Eddie Levert Comes”:
“Unfortunately the zeal of the newly converted is bewildering to the children of the newly converted. One Saturday night, you’ve got every blanket in the house draped over your head to drown out the sound of your mother’s headboard banging against the bedroom wall as she hollers her soon-to-be-ex-best friend’s husband’s name. And the next Saturday night, she’s snatching the softened deck of playing cards out of your hands because ‘Games of chance are from the devil.’ ”
This collection marks the emergence of a bona fide literary treasure. As one of Philyaw’s characters might say, praise the Lord.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of “The Big Book of the Dead” and host of the Weekly Reader podcast. Visit her at marionwinik.com.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
By: Deesha Philyaw.
Publisher: West Virginia University Press, 192 pages, $18.99.