Fiction Fragments: Deesha Philyaw

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Christopher Golden about his new novel, Red Hands.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes National Book Award finalist Deesha Philyaw.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES, is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The collection focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, TueNight, Apogee Journal, Barrelhouse, Harvard Review, The Baltimore Review, Electric Literature and elsewhere. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Deesha, and congratulations on your nomination for the National Book Award for Fiction. Tell me about your collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Where do the stories come from? Which stories are your favorites in the collection and why?

DP: Thanks, Michelle! The stories come from a few places: a deep nostalgia that I have for my childhood, growing up in the South; memories of growing up in the church, and in particular, of church women; memories of women outside of the church, including my mother and my grandmother; and primarily, my decades-long interest in dissatisfied women, driven by my own dissatisfaction at various periods in my life. I love all the stories in the collection, but my favorites are “Peach Cobbler,” because the main character and her awful situation just get inside you, and lots of readers have told me that it’s their favorite; “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” because it’s a nerdy love story with a happy ending in an otherwise fairly dark collection; and “Jael,” because the main character is incredibly brave, and I just want to hug her.

GMM: The Church plays an important role in Black communities in the United States, and has almost become a trope in fiction about Black people since it seems to be such an integral part of culture. I didn’t go to church as a kid and didn’t have the experience of going to service on Sundays. What would you tell a heathen like me about The Church and why it is important to Black communities?

DP: It goes back to slavery, when belief in a better life to come sustained our ancestors. At the same time, for some enslaved people, Christianity fueled rebellion. Post-Emancipation, the church became a cornerstone of Black community; the first schools for freed people were in churches. HBCUs grew out of churches. And of course, the church was at the crux of the Civil Rights Movement. And now, even as the church holds less sway in the lives of younger generations, it’s influence is still felt–sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. And it’s important to note that Black Christians are not a monolith, though we typically think of the conservative Black evangelical denominations when we talk about “the” Black Church.

GMM: Many writers create stories based on personal experiences and even base characters on people they know. The vampire in my novel, Invisible Chains, is based on a real person with the same name. Not to put you on the spot, but is anyone from your past or who you currently know going to read these stories and say, “hey, that story is about me”? Will they be happy, or will they be upset?

DP: The story “Dear Sister” is about five half-sisters who have the same father. I have four half-sisters. There are aspects of that story that are drawn from our lives, but not in ways that any of my sisters would point to a character and say, “Hey, that’s me!” I wanted to respect their privacy, so I started with a premise that reflects our real-life situation, but fictionalized from there. One of my sisters is a nurse, but she is nothing like Tasheta! Also, there’s lots of mother-daughter stuff in these stories, some (but not all) of it influenced by my complicated relationship with my late mother. But there’s no mother character that’s my mom, and no mother-daughter situation that is us. I lost my mom to breast cancer in 2005, and even though we made peace before she died, there was emotional unfinished business that it seems I needed to work out in these stories. There are pieces of me and pieces of us sprinkled throughout, and that happened organically, subconsciously. I didn’t set out to write a collection about mothers and daughters, but that’s what it is, in some respects.

Also, “How to Make Love to a Physicist” was inspired by a real person, a physicist who I had a crush on. Alas, the crush was unrequited, but my interest inspired this story. This person knows he inspired the story, and he gave me some technical help with the science stuff in it.

A fragment from “Peach Cobbler,” a story from Deesha’s short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife. When I was five, I hovered around my mother in the kitchen, watching, close enough to have memorized all the ingredients and steps by the time I was six. But not too close to make her yell at me for being in the way. And not close enough to see the exact measurements she used. She never wrote the recipe down. Without having to be told, I learned not to ask questions about that cobbler, or about God. I learned not to say anything at all about him hunching over our kitchen table every Monday eating plate after plate of peach cobbler, and then disappearing into the bedroom I shared with my mother.

I became a silent student of my mother and her cobbler-making ways. Even when I was older and no longer believed that God and Reverend Troy Neely were one and the same, I still longed to perfect the sweetness and textures of my mother’s cobbler. My mother, who fed me TV dinners, baked a peach cobbler with fresh peaches every Monday, her day off from the diner where she waited tables. She always said Sunday was her Saturday and Monday was her Sunday. What I knew was that none of her days were for me.

And for many of those Mondays off and on during my childhood, God (to my child’s mind) would stop by and eat it—the entire 8 x 8 pan. My mother never ate any of the cobbler herself; she said she didn’t like peaches. She would shoo me out of the kitchen before God could offer me any, but I doubted he would have offered even if I’d sat right down next to him. God was an old fat man, like a Black Santa, and I imagined my mother’s peach cobbler contributing to his girth.

Some Mondays, God would arrive after dinner and leave as I lay curled up on the couch watching Little House on the Prairie in the living room. Other times, my mother and God would already be in the bedroom when I got home from school. I could hear moaning and pounding, like a board hitting a wall, as soon as I entered the house. I would shut the front door quietly behind me and tiptoe down the hall to listen outside the bedroom door. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” my mother would cry. I could hear God too, his voice low and growly, saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Even before he started coming by on Mondays, 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. My very first Easter speech, memorized in kindergarten during Sunday School, was “Jesus is the Son of God,” but I didn’t find it odd that Black God could have a blue-eyed, blond son. Pastor Neely was dark, his wife was pale, and their son, Trevor, who was around my age, had gray eyes and wasn’t too much darker than the Jesus whose picture hung all over church. Plus, midway through every Sunday service, Pastor Neely, his wife, and Trevor stood in the front of the sanctuary and collected a love offering from the congregation as the choir sang, “I Love You (Lord, Today).” So it was easy for me to deduce that Pastor Neely was the “Lord.” My mother’s cries of passion through our bedroom door confirmed it.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you in 2021!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

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