Complicating Unhelpful Binaries: Talking with Deesha Philyaw

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Deesha Philyaw has always been a dynamic writer, but she wasn’t always in the realm of fiction. In 2013, she co-authored Coparenting 101 with her ex-husband, Michael D. Thomas. For several years, she built a brand around the co-parenting book and continued to write for a variety of publications, but she always felt that her true passion was fiction.

She was a columnist here at The Rumpus, writing a series of author interviews entitled Visible: Women Writers of Color and has written articles about parenting, race, gender, and culture featured in a variety of publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Review.

This year, Deesha’s fiction debut, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, was released to an exuberant response from critics. The intimate short story collection about Black women walking the fine line between the expectations of the church and their desires was a finalist for the National Book Awards, and was described by Ms. Magazine as “cheeky, insightful, and irresistible.”

In this interview, Deesha talks about her return to fiction, her process for how she vividly shaped these stories, and the unique experience of doing a virtual book tour during a pandemic.

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The Rumpus: You’ve mentioned in interviews that your first passion was fiction; can you tell me a little bit about the process of getting away from fiction and then coming back to it?

Deesha Philyaw: I chose fiction initially by default because I was not happy, specifically in the early 2000s. I didn’t feel comfortable writing my own dissatisfaction as truth and so I kind of gave that dissatisfaction to these other women, these characters. In the 2000s, I wrote three different attempts at novels, and I wrote a couple of short stories during that time. I was writing fiction to work out some things, to give voice to things that I wasn’t comfortable giving voice to in nonfiction, but I really enjoyed it. Those early attempts suffered because I was so stuck in my own stuff and I wasn’t really using my stuff as a springboard. The co-parenting book came out and it was such a huge detour because it wasn’t just writing that book but also building a brand and a platform around co-parenting that took up all of several years. And then after that book came out, the agent that I got for that book, she was like, “All right, whenever you have that novel ready, I’m ready.”

The other three novels I’d been working on, there was one I had started in 2007 that had a lot of promise but I just got stalled on it. I continued writing short stories and my agent would come to events where I would be reading them. By the second event, she was like, “You know, these church lady short stories are really good.” She was the first one to see that thread. I’m writing about dissatisfied women, but it was theme of Black women, sex, and the Black church that was running through it. She suggested that maybe I would find the short story collection less daunting than finishing this novel that I had been working on for so many years at that time. It sounded more possible.

Rumpus: What brought you on the theme of church ladies?

Philyaw: I grew up in church and the women inside and outside the church made such an impression on me at a critical time in my life. Going through puberty, you start to figure out this whole idea of adulthood and womanhood. Having been sent to church from a very young age definitely shaped my view of the world in a sense of good and bad and are you going to go to heaven or are you going to go to hell and all of these really unhelpful binaries. Things were more simple when I was a kid. As you get older, things look a little more complicated.

The ladies outside of the church seemed like they were having a lot more fun, but I was like, are they going to all go to hell? Looking at the women inside the church and thinking of my own sort of burgeoning sexual self and sexuality, does that mean that I’m going to be like them? Do I have to dress like that? Do they even like sex? Do they masturbate? Are they not supposed to have sex when they’re not married? What do they do with these feelings that I’m starting to have, when I don’t know what to do with these feelings? It made such a huge impression on me, these questions about how our denial comes up against these restrictions and these binaries.

Rumpus: How long did it take to write all of these stories?

Philyaw: They were all written in a range. Probably the oldest story in the collection was written four or five years ago, and then the most recent one would have been written last year. But even with that said, some of the stories that I wrote last year might have started as three lines that I wrote three years ago. So it’s a range.

Rumpus: So you would step away from the story and then come back to find these couple lines and realize where you wanted to go with them?

Philyaw: That’s how I shaped the collection. After the collection was sold as a partial manuscript, we had six stories in the manuscript. Three of them had already been published. When the publisher bought the manuscript, and I had to finish the book, I decided that I didn’t like one of the six stories. I felt like it was the weakest link. So I pulled that out. I had five stories, and I had to get to thirty-five thousand words. I looked at my folder of other stories and thought about the ones that I was most excited about because it was going to be really hard to rush a story that I wasn’t excited about.

I’m thinking specifically about “Instructions for a Very Christian Husband,” like maybe ten to fifteen pages of a story that had the narrator from that story as the main character. I wasn’t as excited about it as its own kind of story with the traditional narrative, but I like the idea of playing with form and took maybe two big paragraphs from these ten to fifteen pages and then built the rest of what became that story from those and just scrapped everything else because I wasn’t that excited about it. It was more of a traditional story of a woman who has serial affairs, and then she meets this one particular guy. When it came time to write that story out, I couldn’t. I was not that interested in it. I felt like this has been done, and I don’t have anything to say about that. But there was something about her voice and those two paragraphs that I pulled out and was like, this I can do something with. I wanted to do something that was less traditional.

Rumpus: So, some of it was sort of a mash-up of putting different ideas together?

Philyaw: More like just experiments, like taking up a thread of something that I found interesting. Then seeing what if I put this with that. In the case of “Instructions for a Very Christian Husband,” it was listening to the narrative of an affair, the triad of the husband, the wife, and then the mistress. The mistress is usually vilified; she certainly doesn’t control the narrative. The women are pitted against each other and then the guy is just treated as if he’s an accessory as opposed to the central figure. I thought: well, what if I flipped that? Instead of pitting the women against each other, which I don’t find interesting at all, and having the mistress marginalized, what if she was centered and what if she controlled the narrative? Literally controlled it and talked about what she expected and her rules of engagement. In terms of playing with the form, I actually codified an instruction manual. Once I figured out the form, then I got to have fun with it. It would be an instruction manual written by a woman who has affairs.

Rumpus: And you play around with a lot of formats throughout the collection.

Philyaw: “Dear Sister” is epistolary, and I had a lot of fun with that, too.

Rumpus: You’ve had such a remarkable reception. Were you surprised by that?

Philyaw: Yes, because I had hoped that book would speak to and affirm Black women who would see themselves in these stories and these characters, and it has been so exciting to see that other people connected with the book so well. Even if they weren’t Black women. Even if they had never been a church person—that the things were so resonant, that was really exciting. I definitely did not anticipate a National Book Award nomination. I am over the moon excited and am really proud about that as well.

Rumpus: What writers inspire you?

Philyaw: In general, the unapologetic Blackness of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin has always inspired me as a writer. More recently, and more specifically, I think about writers, some friends of mine like Bassey Ikpi, who wrote a memoir called I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying, Nafissa Thompson-Spires who wrote Heads of the Colored People, and Tyrese Coleman who wrote How to Sit. What they all have in common—these three very different books—is that they really just didn’t ask for permission to write these stories, and they’re not blueprints for what they did with these books. They wrote these books because it’s what they wanted to write and not because of what’s going to sell or who is going to relate. They just were quirky; they were raw, playing again with form.

Rumpus: So who’s your favorite church lady?

Philyaw: Oh gosh, in the world or in my book?

Rumpus: How about both?

Philyaw: It’s so relative. Like if you ask my favorite movie, I couldn’t tell you. I will tell you what comes to my mind, right? I have to come back to the one about the favorite in the world, but as far as in the book it’s tough because some of my favorite characters in the book aren’t church ladies. They are church-lady adjacent. Maybe I would say Jael? She’s a church girl, she goes to church, but she’s just badass and braver than I was certainly at fourteen and braver than I am now. So, I would say Jael.

Then, in real life, when you think about church in your life, I’m gonna say it’s someone who I’ve never met. There’s a lady who reached out to me on Instagram and we got talking, pretty sure I ended up sending a signed copy of my book to her grandmother for her eightieth birthday and she’s a church lady. After I did it, I was like oh, my gosh, this lady’s gonna be reading about sex and all this stuff. And I was like, you know, it’s gone now. But her granddaughter thought she would enjoy it and not only did she enjoy it, she sent me a card and told me how much she enjoyed it. And you can file that under things I did not anticipate. I did not anticipate an eighty-year-old church lady really loving my book. So, she’s my favorite.

Rumpus: I like the back and forth between the grandmother and Jael’s journal. What was it like writing that story, navigating the two different voices?

Philyaw: It started with Jael. The story in the Bible inspired me to write her the way I did. I knew that she was going to have that voice, that she was going to be a take-no-shit kind of person and that was pretty easy to establish. Then I knew that I wanted there to be a mother figure in her life who discovers what’s going on with Jael. There’s this whole concept from The Bad Seed, which was my mother’s favorite movie, about this young girl who was murderous. There’s this theory in the movie about how the bad seed shifts a generation and that would mean that Jael’s grandmother was the bad seed and I didn’t want to have two bad seeds together. I don’t know why, but I always felt like she was motherless, so I was like, well, then it would be her great-grandmother who is going to be the church-lady influence in this story. Then I was like, okay, Jael is crafty. I knew that. And I was like, how then, will her great-grandmother know what she was up to. And that’s when the diary device kind of came into play. That’s how the two voices emerged.

Rumpus: How did growing up in the South influence your writing process?

Philyaw: I have now lived in Pittsburgh longer than I lived in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. But I still don’t think of Pittsburgh as home, and I still think of the South as home. And I still think of myself very much as a Southerner. All of those women who I have these memories of, they’re all Southern. You know how you might know different languages, but there’s one that you think in? I still think in Southern—Southern culture and Southern dialect. That’s still the voice that’s in my head.

Obviously, I can write about people who are not Southern, but I prefer to write about people who are from the South and I prefer to write about the ways that being in the South has shaped us. I think so many Black people stories are Southern stories, even when they’re set in other places because of the Great Migration. So you can have a story that’s set in Chicago, and there’s still these Southernisms. For Black folks, that will come up. Black is in terms of origin, it’s our Southern grandmothers and grandfathers who carried these traditions from the South to these places in the West and Midwest and in the North. It’s the sounds of the voices; that’s music for me. I think I am also just very deeply nostalgic for it. There are lots of things I don’t miss about living in the South, but I certainly miss a time I was happy in terms of how I grew up and where I grew up, and the people that I grew up with. There’s always just kind of that fondness and that nostalgia for me. There’s not many places and ways that I can replicate that in my day-to-day life, I mean it comes out in my cooking and—pre-pandemic—in my hospitality and things like that.

Rumpus: Can you tell me about the unique experience of doing a book tour during a pandemic?

Philyaw: I don’t have anything to compare it to! With my first book, there was no book tour. Now that everything’s online, it just created more opportunities to connect with people around the book. And reading is one of the few things we can still do safely, and a lot of folks, myself included, wanted to support other authors and support indie bookstores.

There was a point where every book on the New York Times best-seller list had something to do with Blackness or race. So people are definitely buying particular kinds of books because of George Floyd’s death and the deaths of far too many others, sparking and really turning this moment into a time of reconciliation and uprisings in the street, and that impacted what people were reading and it impacted our desire to support each other.

That said, once the world does open up again, I would still like to do in-person events, but I think I’ll have a different attitude about it. In many ways, I’m an introvert and a traditional book tour probably would have really exhausted me at a certain point. But now, I’ve been isolated from people for so long, I think my line for fatigue will be a little more generous.

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Photograph of Deesha Philyaw by Vanessa German.


Nia Norris is a freelance writer and journalist in Chicago, IL with a passion for literature, public health, and social justice. More from this author →