A Review of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

Erika T. Wurth

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.
by Deesha Philyaw
West Virginia University Press, 2020
192 pages

There’s a reason Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies — an underdog in almost every sense of the word — ended up not only as a finalist for the National Book Awards, followed by a book adaption by HBO — it’s a killer.

Opening with a story about two religiously-raised women who have been in an on-again-off again affair for years, this is where we not only begin to enter the tremendously rich and nuanced world Philyaw offers us, but we get our first glimpse into the way in which she uses language to stun us into silence, with lines like, “Her head is bowed, and I wonder if she’s asking God’s forgiveness for stepping outside of His favor as she continues to wait on His provision.” (2) In this story, we learn that Eula is waiting for a man — and Caroletta’s waiting for Eula to see what’s right in front of her.

What’s so striking throughout this entire collection, is the way in which tenderness and darkness meet — whether it’s through very human portraits of children who all share the same father — but not mother, who bond as a family in “Dear Sister,” or in the stunning, painfully lovely “Peach Cobbler.” This is a portrait of a mother and daughter relationship, where the mother wants more for her daughter than she ended up with herself — but can’t help but sour their relationship in doing so. It’s another story that hits hard with language, the opening line, “My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife,” an unequivocal stunner. (39)

What also makes this collection so winning, has much to do with the world offered. It’s a series of alternative timelines in some ways, a portal into different worlds — worlds that could — and do — exist in the world we know, but ones that show us all of these alternate realities for hyper-intelligent, Black women who just want to put that intelligence, education, and beautiful southern Blackness to use in a world that’s often so hostile to these things. But through it all, their beauty shines anyway.

This collection transcends, ironically, in the sense that these characters are not trying to be anything other than they are. Sometimes parts of their lives are struggle, sometimes parts of their lives are pain — but these are not women who hate themselves, they’ve seen that, and they want to move forward into something better, even if that path sometimes leads them into strange alleyways, careless men. It’s a collection that hums with the notion that one doesn’t have to assimilate to be successful, and one doesn’t have to be perfect to be bursting with goodness.


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