Deesha Philyaw's "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies" to be adapted by HBO Max

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Olivia Murray, The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.
·4 min read
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Apr. 3—Deesha Philyaw's "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, " published by West Virginia University Press, has gained national recognition and is slated for an HBO Max adaptation co-authored by Philyaw, who will also serve as executive producer, and actress Tessa Thompson.

The book, released Sept. 1, 2020, consists of nine stories about Black women, religion and sexuality.

Philyaw, who is currently on a virtual book tour to promote the story collection, said she first wrote two stories that are featured in the book, but didn't imagine they would become part of a collection.

She said the stories were initially written as a "detour of sorts " from the novel Philyaw has been working on for nearly a decade. Her agent liked the stories and suggested she work on a story collection while taking a break from working on her novel.

"That felt more possible than finishing the novel that I'd stalled on, " she said.

Philyaw said since she started writing 20 years ago, the characters she has focused on have always been church ladies.

"But I didn't think of them as church ladies ; I thought of them as dissatisfied women. The church is prominent in their lives and in my stories because I grew up in churches. And there's a lot of nostalgia and memory for the South and for the Black women I knew growing up there, women who were in the church and women who weren't, " Philyaw said.

She said she was always curious about how those women navigated the church's recommendations regarding sex and sexuality, as well as the condemnation, pressure and hypocrisy the women faced.

As a girl becoming a woman, Philyaw said she observed those women to see what was possible, and discovered firsthand how much unlearning is required to release oneself from the constraints the church saddles women with.

"So many of us have to unlearn so-called purity culture, the Madonna-whore construct, and homophobia. My stories explore what happens when Black women endeavor to unlearn and get free — and what happens when they can't, " she said.

She said that since authors are always told short-story collections are a hard sell and Philyaw's own book was sold to a university press rather than a big publishing house, she didn't expect her short-story collection to get the recognition it has.

"[This 3/8 has been a great year for short-story collections, not just mine, so hopefully the tide is turning, " Philyaw said.

Philyaw said the book, the national attention it has received, and the opportunities it has presented her have resulted in a greater need for her to say "no, " and make time for herself.

"I've had to quickly learn how to say 'no' even to good things, to good opportunities, so that I can prioritize my own work and rest. Rest is so important, " she said.

Philyaw said she is thrilled, honored and thankful to have her work recognized, though garnering such attention during a time of deep loss, grief and injustice has been bittersweet.

"I do my best to use this greater visibility to support and amplify other Black and marginalized voices, and to contribute to the ongoing movement for justice, " she said.

Director of WVU Press Derek Krissoff said WVU Press also consistently strives to amplify underrepresented voices.

Krissoff said he believes Appalachia and the state of West Virginia are underrepresented themselves. By doing Appalachian studies and publishing books that wouldn't get the attention of a New York publishing house, WVU Press is bringing attention to underrepresented communities almost all the time.

"Even within the region we're trying to make sure that there's a diverse portfolio of authors represented in our publishing program. A lot of that is just very deliberate and entrepreneurial. It requires a degree of effort that we consistently put in to connect with those authors and make sure that the publishing experience with us is an attractive one, so they want to publish with us, " Krissoff said.

He said while WVU Press has always released creative and fiction work, Philyaw's book is a standout because of the public's particular craving to hear Black voices now.

"I think because [Philyaw's 3/8 book presents aspects of the Black experience, particularly at the intersection of race and sexuality, and a whole range of different sexual identities are represented in the book, it makes it especially unusual in the publishing landscape. It shouldn't be as unusual as it is. But I think there are perspectives from Black and LGBTQ communities, for example, in [Philyaw's 3/8 book that one doesn't often hear from, " Krissoff said.

In addition to the upcoming HBO Max adaptation, "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies " has won the Story Prize, a national award for the year's best collection of short stories.

The book was also a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award in fiction, the 2021 Pen /Faulkner Award, and the 2021 L.A. Times Book Prize: Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.

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