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The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

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Notes From Black Reads

A novel that tackles the inner lives of multiple generations of Black women, Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a collection of stories that are complex, touching, sad, funny and, at times, steamy all at once. The nine stories are lovingly crafted from an author clearly at the top of her game.

*FINALIST for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction*
*WINNER of the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award*
*WINNER of the 2020 Story Prize
*WINNER of the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize, Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction*

“Beguiling.” —The New Yorker
“Tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
—Publishers Weekly
“Cheeky, insightful, and irresistible.” —​​​​​​​Ms. Magazine
“This collection marks the emergence of a bona fide literary treasure.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Full of lived-in humanity, warmth, and compassion.” —Pittsburgh Current

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.

There is fourteen-year-old Jael, who has a crush on the preacher’s wife. At forty-two, Lyra realizes that her discomfort with her own body stands between her and a new love. As Y2K looms, Caroletta’s “same time next year” arrangement with her childhood best friend is tenuous. A serial mistress lays down the ground rules for her married lovers. In the dark shadows of a hospice parking lot, grieving strangers find comfort in each other.

With their secret longings, new love, and forbidden affairs, these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.

ISBN-13: 9781949199734

Media Type: Paperback(1st Edition)

Publisher: West Virginia University Press

Publication Date: 09-01-2020

Pages: 192

Product Dimensions: 4.70(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.70(d)

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight, and elsewhere. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, she currently lives in Pittsburgh with her daughters.

Read an Excerpt

How to Make Love to a Physicist [excerpted]

How do you make love to a physicist? You do it on Pi Day—pi is a constant, also irrational—but the groundwork is laid months in advance. First you must meet him in passing at a STEAM conference. As a middle school art teacher, you are there to ensure the A(rts) are truly represented and not lost amid the giants of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. But as a Black woman, you are there playing Count the Negroes, as you do at every conference. He is number twelve, at a conference of hundreds. On the first day of the conference, you notice him coming down the convention center escalator as you ride up. You try to guess which letter of the acronym he is there to represent. His face and baby dreads give you equal parts “poet” and “high school math teacher.”

On the second day of the conference, you see him again at a breakout session, “Arts Integration and Global Citizenry.” He’s chatting with the presenter—a sista, number thirteen—before the session begins. From what you overhear, you glean that they know each other from their undergrad days in Atlanta in the early nineties. The have a lot of people in common at their respective alma maters. They promise to catch up again before the conference is over. You notice she’s wearing a wedding ring, and he is not.

As you’re leaving the breakout session, he notices you noticing him. His smile is brilliant; you smile back. He falls in step with you, extends his hand, and introduces himself. He says “Eric Turman,” but you hear “Erick Sermon.” And your eyes widen and then narrow because you think he’s joking, in a weirdly esoteric way.

“No, Eric Turman,” he says again, laughing. “Not the guy from EPMD.”

“Got it,” you say. “I’m Lyra James. Not to be confused with Rick James.”

Eric chuckles. “But often confused with Lyra, home to one of the brightest stars in the night sky.”

The compliment takes you by surprise, and you’re probably doing a shitty job of hiding it. “So you’re . . . a science teacher?”

He is not a science teacher, nor is he a poet. He’s a physicist and chair of the education programs committee for the American Physics Society.

You make small talk about “Arts Integration and Global Citizenry.” He asks what brings you to the conference and you tell him you teach middle school art—sculpting, printmaking, painting, fiber arts, ceramics. He asks if you will tell him more over lunch. And you do. And then the conversation continues over dinner—you learn what the chair of the education programs committee for the American Physics Society does—and then in the bar of the conference hotel, over drinks. And then on a sofa in the lobby. You each share your top five MCs. You debate Scarface vs. Rakim for number one.

You notice his thick eyelashes, large hands, and a little scar next to his right eyebrow. When he lifts his newsboy cap a few times to scratch his head, you see the baby dreads are neat and well moisturized.

He tells you about his job, the one that pays the bills, where he develops astrophysics and cosmology theories, and conducts research to test those theories. “I aspire to be an astronaut as a side hustle, but NASA won’t return a brotha’s calls.” He shrugs. “What about you?”

“Me?” you say. “Oh, I just have the one job.”

“And your aspirations?”

You take a deep breath and spill your dreams. “You know that school LeBron James started? I want to start one like that. A bunch of them, actually, all over the country. But I’ll start with one, serving entire families. That’s really the key, you know?”

He knows. And then before you know it, it’s after midnight, and you’re both still wearing your conference lanyards, and together, you are solving all of public education’s problems, but for want of an end to systemic racism, abolishment of the current system of school funding, and a few billion dollars. Eric has pulled out his phone, made a few calculations, recorded the recommendations you’ve given him—of artists, works of art, books, public school advocacy programs. He is curious and he’s listening.

At 2:13 a.m., he says, “Well, you are refreshing.” And you feel anything but, because those French 75s you had at the bar have made you drowsy. And because it’s 2:13. But you want him to keep talking, to keep listening. Maybe invite him to come up? No, too soon. You don’t think he’s a serial killer; that’s not it. It’s that you don’t want him to think you’re that kind of woman. The kind your mother warned you not to be, so you have not been. You are forty-two.

Maybe ask him to meet for breakfast in the morning, then? No, too presumptuous.

Your eyes must’ve glazed over as you debated yourself, because he says, “I better let you get some rest. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.”

And you both stand and stretch. But then you just stand there, looking at each other, not leaving.

“I hope I’m not being too presumptuous,” he begins, “but would you like to meet for breakfast?”


How do you make love to a physicist? On the flight home from the conference, you tally all the things you have in common:

· You’re tired of people asking why you’re still single.
· You care about children, but don’t want any of your own.
· Fall is your favorite season.
· You’re not a fan of Tyler Perry, and you’re tired of people insisting you become one.
· You both have terrible vision and had to navigate your childhood being teased. (“Your glasses so thick, you can see the future” was a perennial favorite.)
· The first Aunt Viv is your favorite.
· In the case of Prince vs. Michael Jackson, you got Prince.

You took all your meals with him for the rest of the conference and talked for hours and hours but left so many things unsaid. Like how you had a high school sweetheart and a college sweetheart and a grad school sweetheart. How men chose you, and you devoted years to the relationships, but never quite felt at home in your body with them—an understanding your therapist has helped you to articulate. You didn’t tell him how you stayed until those men decided to leave you for women more at home in their bodies, more sure of themselves, prettier.

You didn’t tell him that, as corny and clichéd as it sounds, you’re more accustomed to speaking through your art. Paintings and sketches you framed and gave as gifts, or framed and hung in your own house. But these days, you mostly just pour yourself into your students. It’s safer that way.

You didn’t tell him how, one by one over the decades, you’d lost all your good girlfriends to marriage and motherhood, your friendships reduced to children’s birthday parties and the rare Girls’ Night Out.

You didn’t tell him that aside from the occasional online dating fling, plus some fumbling around with a childhood friend when he’s between women he would actually date, you’re celibate for months at a time.

Later your therapist will ask why any of those things needed to be said to a man you just met. You know she has a point, but you have no answer other than that maybe you’re the kind of woman who should come with a warning, a disclaimer.

If Eric had withheld even a fraction of the things you withheld, that would be a lot of stuff. By the time your plane touches down, you’ve resolved that you will never know the real him, or if he was even sincere. At baggage claim, you’ll decide that it had just been the excitement of the moment, that he’d get back to his life and forget all about you. And you should try to do the same. So you delete his number from your phone.

That night, when you are back home in your own bed, you send your colleagues in the math and science departments a long email detailing your desire to collaborate with them in the coming school year.


Table of Contents

Dear Sister
Peach Cobbler
How to Make Love to a Physicist
Instructions for Married Christian Husbands
When Eddie Levert Comes