All the Church Ladies Are Having Secret Sex

Deesha Philyaw's "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies" centers the complexities and desires of Southern Black women

Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

There was a point reading Deesha Philyaw’s story “Snowfall” about a lesbian couple in her debut short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies where I stopped and let out a big sigh. The passage, after listing the traits of Southern Black women, traits so familiar and so beautiful to me, it made me teary and reminded me of all of the matriarchs I knew growing up, Philyaw writes:

“But we lost all those things when we chose each other. Only the memories remain. Which is why, even though we grew up in different places, so many of our bedtime conversations start with ‘Remember when . . . ,’ as we lie there in the dark with our nostalgia and nothing to distract us from it. Not even each other, not anymore.”

This passage illustrates what Philyaw does well in this collection, which is to border and make bare the line between generations, the conservatism rooted in the Black church, and the consequences when we chose to keep or not to keep secrets. 

In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Philyaw imagines two best friends who are secret lovers, a woman who falls for a physicist, lovers who seek solace away from dying parents, and a teenage girl drawn into her mother’s affair with “God.” Each story reveals the inner lives of women who are often overlooked and stereotyped: The Black Church Lady. 

I spoke with Deesha Philyaw about sex as a literary device, writing “grown woman” stories, and the capacity of Black women to incite change.

Tyrese L Coleman: So, I hope this isn’t giving too much away, but one of the secrets to the secret lives is sex.

Deesha Philyaw: Yes, indeed! Lots of secret sex.

TLC: Secret Lives puts sex, the having and the not having of it, as a grounding device, almost. In many of the stories, there is a way that it either turns the plot or helps understand a character or leads the reader and/or the characters toward the emotional epiphany or climax (see what I did there?). Literary sex is often times described as awful or unsatisfying or an access point to examine some hidden shame. Your characters, however, for the most part, enjoy what they do. It seems that you are more concerned with the consequences of the sex rather than the act itself. Is that true? And were you trying to approach the topic in a different, more nuanced way than say the average literary short story? Why and how?

DP: I definitely find the consequences and circumstances of the sex in the stories far more interesting than the sex acts themselves. It is fun to titillate, though. And I wasn’t thinking in comparative terms, but I did want to write the sex without my own self-consciousness about it getting in the way. I wanted to write the sex so that it rang true to the characters and their situations. Sometimes that called for nuance, and other times, less so. 

TLC: What I also really enjoy is the moral ambiguity and, therefore dimensions, given to the Black women in this collection. Oftentimes, especially when we see stories about older Black women or church going Black women, they are already given angelic status, a martyr before they even die. But the women in Secret Lives are complex and driven by their own desire while navigating the conservative landscape of the Black church. 

DP: Right, we know those very limiting binaries and archetypes. We know the public faces that those women, and the rest of us, wear some or all of the time. But we also know that all of us are fully human, and, at times, full of longing and discontent, behind those masks.

TLC: This collection is not just heterosexual love, but queer love and sex as well. Black people are and have been notoriously homophobic, especially those “Church Ladies” who belong to auxiliary and usher boards. Can you talk about the importance of including a wider spectrum of the ways in which Black women love in Secret Lives?

DP: Well, I think even our collective homophobia is on a spectrum, inside and outside of the church. Growing up, I saw queer Black men and boys marginalized, mocked, and horrifically abused, but also sometimes embraced; there was a gamut. But queer women and girls were condemned and brutalized, without exception. That’s what I saw in my little Southern corner of the world. And so these women and girls show up in my stories as free—or trying to get free—as fully themselves, loving in all the ways that we love.

TLC: I also think that there is something to be said about the concept of two Black women loving one another as friends and romantically. One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Eula,” about two best friends who have a tradition of hooking up with one another despite the obvious denial of one of them. “Eula” felt to me like a commentary on the question of whether or not you could be queer and yet still be a god-fearing Christian woman. Can you talk a little about that?

The queer Black women and girls show up in my stories as free—or trying to get free—as fully themselves, loving in all the ways that we love.

DP: I think several stories in the collection ask the question subtly or outright, “Can you ____ and still be a (good) Christian?” It’s unlikely that either of the characters in Eula would be comfortable being called “queer.” I think their situation is one of fluidity, though they probably wouldn’t like that concept either. Once again, the binary is limiting. And then, to make things even messier, how do you define “Christian”? How do you define “good”? People like the characters in “Eula” end up in a kind of bondage, trapped by fear. Fear of going to hell, but also fear of their own desires. That’s no way to live.

TLC: And also a moral fluidity too as many of the characters flow in and out of traditional mindsets and behavior, but then again, there is something holding the steady, whether it be the actual church or their family. That steadiness may be deceiving but anchoring, yet those institutions where the conflict lies.

DP: Yes! Soon after I turned my manuscript into the publisher, it dawned on me: Mother-daughter stuff runs all up and through these stories. And that makes sense because I lost my mother to breast cancer in 2005, and my complicated relationship with her was probably the defining relationship of my life. So we see in the Church Lady stories, a mother can be an anchor, as you say, a steadying force, for better or for worse. And once I took note of the heavy mother-daughter presence in the collection, it occurred to me that, simply put, our mothers are sometimes contradictions. And so are we daughters as mothers. And so it goes.

TLC: What Secret Lives is not about is men, meaning, while they play pivotal roles, the fire in say a story like”Peach Cobbler,” is in the relationship between the mother and daughter. I feel like this is more a play on the concept of a secret life for Black women. Can you talk about the roles in which men play in these secret lives?

DP: My friend Damon Young said it best. He said that men are garnish in this book. LOL. It happened organically. When I think about my experiences in the churches of my youth, it’s the women I remember most. Partly because, as a girl, I was watching them to see what my options were for this thing called womanhood. But also because, as we know, women greatly outnumber men in the church, though not in the pulpit and positions of leadership. So it’s the women who loom largest in my memories and in my imagination. Also, I grew up surrounded by women and girls. I was raised in a house with women. My mother, my grandmother, and their friends—my characters speak with their voices.

Several stories in the collection ask the question subtly or outright, ‘Can you ____ and still be a (good) Christian?’

So, yes, in many ways, this world of women was a secret place. But I don’t know that we were necessarily intentional about keeping secrets from men. Sometimes, women keep truths from ourselves and other women too, to our detriment. And, let’s be real—sometimes, men don’t know what’s going on because they don’t listen to us. 

Thinking about the stories in Secret Lives, some of the men are . . . useful. They scratch an itch, provide comfort. Others also provide something, but are also terrible. And sometimes, of course, they are the secret.

TLC: One of the things I love about this collection is how “adult” it feels. Not so much because of the sex, but most of the main characters are dealing with concerns that feel like grown women problems. I just finished reading a novel about a twenty-something and, while I adore the book, I crave stories about Black women who are in their thirties, forties, fifties, etc. Why was it important to you to represent the perspective of the grown woman?

DP: Honestly, it’s because that’s where I am right now and because my thirties is when I really started to live. I didn’t develop a sense of humor until I was about 34.  I’m knocking on fifty’s door right now, and — the pandemic and Trump notwithstanding — this is my best, most interesting life.

TLC: You and I both have talked about how important it is to put the voices and stories of Black women out in the world. It has seemed to me that Black women do so much for others and ourselves in the dark. But, now, a Black woman has been added to a presidential ticket. We always hear the phrase “trust Black women,” but what does that mean to you and are we heading toward a reality where Black women are no longer making moves in the margins? 

It’s wild that people want to marginalize [Black women], but also want to be us, dress like us, look like us. We do it first and we do it best.

DP: Yeah, we’re making moves wherever we want to. It’s wild that people want to marginalize us, but also want to be us, dress like us, look like us. We do it first and we do it best. We just want people to move out of our way, to remove barriers, such as racism and misogynoir, out of our way. We’ve learned how to maneuver around them and confront them. But we didn’t invent white supremacy or misogyny, so it’s not our job to clean up that mess. Trusting Black women means believing us when we talk about these barriers, and then clearing a path for us. But when that doesn’t happen, we have to fight our way through, for justice or for access. And then we’re angry Black women. And you know the rest. 

But then we think about our ancestors. We think about Fannie Lou Hamer and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. We think about our grandmothers. They made a way out of no way. They told stories that centered us, unapologetically. They lived, wrote, and fought for Black people, for us. They didn’t let white folks’ limited imaginations stop them from doing the things they wanted to do. Or at least aiming for it. Zora Neale Hurston’s mother encouraged her children to jump at the sun. We have to be just as brave.

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