When She Says Amen

Q&A with Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Cover photo courtesy of West Virginia University Press

Fanning back through my copy of Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies to revisit my annotations, savoring my favorite lines, I found the stories on queer love riddled with underlines, asterisks and hearts in the margins. Philyaw’s renderings of romantic relationships in general are just *chef’s kiss,* but there was something else there too. Despite the title, I was surprised to find most lines I marked nod to the church and embed religious language. For example, the first story, Eula, ends with:

When she says amen, I get up and walk to the foot of the bed and kneel down. Eula’s toenails are painted the same pink as her scarf. I reach for her ankles and pull her toward me. She scoots on her butt until she’s at the edge, her feet flat on the bed on either side of me. She spreads her knees apart. I push down gently on the inside of her thighs until she is open, like an altar. 10-9-8… I am speaking in tongues. 4-3-2… Eula has her prayers and I have mine.

Oh, yes, these stories go there. To be sure, the church weighs heavily on these characters, especially the queer ones, but this book is also a celebration of Black queer love, one offered in communion with all the trials and private joys that come with it.

Like many queer people, especially those of us with religious upbringings, my own relationship to the church is… complicated, and one I try to avoid dwelling on. Spending time with the characters in this, dare I say, holy collection reminds us that it’s okay to hold those tangled feelings, no matter our relationship to our church or childhoods. This is only one of the many gifts Philyaw offers her readers.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, though not billed as a queer lit, brims with lesbian love between Black women. It offers readers the opportunity to consider fuller truths about the spectrum of queer experience. It calls on white folks like me to make room for these stories and to seek out and hold a central space for Black and other BIPOC queer narratives.

Philyaw, who lives in Pittsburgh, asks us to consider who, what, or where comprises “home,” and what memories are catalogued there. She asks us about queerness and motherhood. What tensions or joy do we hold in those spaces and roles? She asks us to look for those answers, to underline our own truths, and finally, to keep asking questions about the unending continuum of what constitutes a queer story. I asked her a few of my own.

Deesha Philyaw. Photo credit Vanessa German.

Though there are whispers (and glorious shouts!) of queerness throughout the book, this collection features several distinctly queer relationships between Black women characters, all at different points in their lives and stages of coming to terms with their queer identities. On page one of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, we meet Eula and Caroletta, forever on again off again friends slash lovers. Eula is a kind of moving target for Caroletta. Can you talk about your choice to start the book with the story of these women?

In part, it was a sentimental choice. Three of the stories in the collection were published in literary journals before the collection was completed, and Eula was the first of those stories to be published. Also, Eula is one of the most provocative stories in the collection, one that hits all the overarching themes in very explicit ways, so I figured I’d lead with it to let the reader know right away what they were in store for. Fear, secrecy, guilt, and shame are the byproducts of women feeling torn between what they’ve learned at church, from their families, or both, and their very human desires, needs, and longings. Eula and Caroletta embody this struggle.

There are wrenching and beautifully wrought moments in “Eula” in which their relationship feels simultaneously impossible and inevitable, complicated and layered, uniquely queer. Can you talk about your writing process in portraying queer love? Does it differ from your process of writing straight relationships?

The process is different only in that I take extra care to make sure I’m not doing harm when I write about queer love, because the potential to do harm is there. I have to make sure that the gaze on the situation isn’t “othering” or gratuitous.

In “Snowfall,” we’re introduced to long-term partners Arletha & Rhonda, as well as the term, “mother-privilege,” which I think reflects a rub that many queer couples feel when one person’s family is more accepting than the others is. This, of course, directly affects one’s experience of “home.” Can you talk a little bit about Arletha’s process of cataloging what home means to her as a queer woman, redefining her relationship with her mother, and how queer couples might reconcile with and show empathy for a partner’s different concept of home?

I think Arletha’s process is a grieving process. Even though she does have a glimmer of a prospect of having a relationship with her mother, it’s likely never going to be the relationship that she’d hoped her relationship with her mother would grow into, rooted in their closeness in her childhood and adolescence, rooted in her hiding the fact that she loved girls, and later, women. So, I think the questions for her (and anyone in a similar situation) are, “Is ‘home’ one place at a time? Or can you have a foot in two, non-intersecting worlds and still feel ‘at home,’ at peace? Can ‘home’ really be a person, as it is for Rhonda? What does it mean for their relationship if ‘home’ means different things for each of them?” Rhonda seems resolute, but Arletha has to make her peace. All of that said, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach. If someone in Rhonda’s position found their partner’s relationship with an unaccepting parent to be hurtful, there would be more layers of emotion and expectation to work through, lots of transparency and communication, and perhaps–and this sound might sound sort of callous–perhaps some degree of negotiation. I think the work of relationships sometimes does involve negotiation, to get to understanding and empathy.

Matriarchal expectations run deep throughout the book. Can you talk about your approach to writing mother-daughter relationships, particularly in the context of queer daughters? The line “I told her everything about me she claimed she didn’t know” really rang in my ears. How do inter-generational familial relationships, like that of closeted Jael and her traditional, religious grandmother, make progress in terms of having these conversations?

I wish I could delineate my approach, but the truth is, it was really organic and subconscious. I lost my mother to breast cancer in 2005. During the last six weeks of her life, while she was in hospice, we had our moment of reckoning about our difficult relationship. But I realized, after writing Church Ladies, that some unfinished business between us remained, and it really showed up in these stories, almost every one of them. None of the mother-daughter relationships in my stories are my mother and me outright, but there are pieces of us throughout. For the queer daughters and the non-queer daughters, there is this huge burden of “respectability,” and a heavy pressure to conform, to be “presentable,” physically and otherwise. I think progress involves navigating what you, as a daughter, need to feel free and unburdened, and then, again, negotiating, figuring out how much of a relationship you can safely have with the mother figures in your life, within the healthy boundaries you’ve set for safety and respect. It might be a very tiny relationship that’s possible; meaningful, but with limited contact. Or it may be a more expansive one, with more contact, that doesn’t go much below the surface. Whatever that relationship becomes, whatever is possible, it’s still important to have room to grieve what isn’t possible, what has been lost.

It’s important to acknowledge and honor the time when this book was released: a reckoning moment of racial justice which has also spurred a long overdue, public reflection and commitment to protecting Black queer and trans lives. What role do you see representation, especially of Black queer women, in literature and storytelling playing in this moment? How did this factor into your experience of writing and/or publishing this book?

Representation is step one of so many steps needed for justice. Representation without action, without disruption, without atonement, without reparations, without equity, without protection, without sustainability, is just tokenism. But it’s an important step one to move marginalized folks from the margins to the center, especially in the narratives of their own lives. It should not be a radical thing to center Black women in their own stories, but it’s not done nearly enough. Instead, we get The Help. Instead, we get Hidden Figures starring Kevin Costner. As for the writing and publishing of my book, this centering was seamless, embedded; I wasn’t thinking in terms of representation. You simply cannot tell the whole truth about Black women’s struggles to navigate in the space between their desires and what the church tells them they should desire, if you don’t tell queer women’s stories.

Whiteness often dominates queer spaces, and I think some of the magic of this book is that these *Black queer women*  are the stars of the show. Can you talk about the importance of holding space, in fiction and IRL, for Black and other BIPOC queer femmes?

Any art, any event, any endeavor that centers all Black women and femmes–queer, trans, and het–is a righting of wrongs, a necessary corrective to the centuries-long narrative about who we are that has served as justification to brutalize, enslave, marginalize, oppress, and disenfranchise us. So, this centering is absolutely essential to any work that calls itself honest or restorative or justice-seeking. And what it demands is that white folks and men embrace listening and following, sitting with their discomfort at not being centered, not leading, but instead earning and being led and being held accountable.

The Church is a central character in this book, sometimes an antagonizing force as characters grapple with homophobic ideologies that have been ingrained in them with which they’re now at odds as adults, whether they know it or not. There’s obviously a LOT to unpack here, but I do have a couple burning questions: 1. How would you describe the relationship between sex and prayer in these stories?

If we think of prayer as an expression of longing and a setting of intentions, then sex can be a kind of prayerful expression. Also, both sex and prayer can embody ritual in really beautiful ways. Both can be a conduit for restoration, resetting, and cleansing.

You explicitly celebrate (queer) female pleasure in this book, which the Church has historically condemned. How do your characters hold both– their orgasmic queerness and their history/relationship with the Church?

In some cases, my characters hold these things in tension, in secret, in shame, and with guilt; I’m thinking of Eula and Caroletta here. For Arletha, her mother’s beliefs about queerness are shaped by the church’s teachings, so she’s contending with that, rather than with the church directly. She and Rhonda have likely made their peace with the church–and basically, peaced out. And while Jael wrangles with her feelings for Sister Sadie, and, to a lesser degree, her best friend, I get the sense that her wrangling isn’t so much with the Church, but rather, without a sure reciprocity, she doesn’t know what to do with these particular feelings. I like to imagine her as an adult, church-free, freely loving who she wants to love.

I’d be remiss not to ask about Pittsburgh as a setting in this collection, especially for our Yinzer readers. Arletha and Rhonda in “Snowfall” are living in Pittsburgh (one can safely assume?!) as queer Black women from the South, which I imagine is very difficult. So, I’ll throw some tough love on the 412 and ask: What can Pittsburgh do better for Black queer women? Since this is a local magazine, who in the Pittsburgh area do we need to be reading right now, especially queer BIPOC writers?

As someone who has had two very long relationships with/marriages to men (over most of my adult life) which have afforded me a lot of privilege, I don’t consider it my place to speak for Black queer women. I’ll just refer back to what I said earlier about white people and men needing to hold a listening and learning posture; the same is true for folks who aren’t queer in spaces that should be queer-centered. And I would add that those of us who have privilege and power–regardless of whatever marginalization we also have–we have a responsibility to empower and sustain those who have less. Finally, I will lift up four local Black queer women and femme writers who everyone should be reading and listening to: Tyra Jamison (Mant¿s), Joy KMT, Tresa Murphy-Green, and Alona Williams.

About Deesha Philyaw

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Harvard Review, ESPN’s The Undefeated, The Baltimore Review, TueNight, Ebony and Bitch magazines, and various anthologies. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People.

Hannah Waltz works on the U.S. Free Expression Programs team at PEN America, and currently calls Pittsburgh home. A true subscriber to the power of words and stories to promote good change, she's worked at the center of literature and activism at local nonprofits, bookstores and magazines in Pittsburgh, New York, and Indianapolis. She's on the board of ReelQ, Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ+ film festival, and believes in moving queer narratives to the fore.