Wednesday, March 10, 2021

What the Judges Had to Say About The Story Prize Winner, Deesha Philyaw's The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were critic and writer Ismail Muhammad, Margot Sage-EL of Watchung Booksellers, and writer and Williams College professor Karen Shepard. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

Here what the judges had to say about The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw:

“I haven’t read stories as startlingly intimate, as brazen, as the ones in Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in a very long time. Told from the perspectives of multiple generations of Black women and girls who speak like they don’t know the world would rather they keep quiet, the stories in this collection ask us to consider Black women’s desires rather than their oppressions, fears, or anxieties. The result is a series of astonishing characters whose voices I will not easily forget: Caroletta, a lovesick woman who wants her sometimes friend, sometimes lover to admit the necessity of their attraction to one another; Jael, a teenage girl struggling with both her mother’s death and a burgeoning interest in the preacher’s wife; and a young girl who mistakes her emotionally distant mother’s lover for God himself. In these stories, Philyaw gives characters whose desire—not just for sex, but for supportive, nurturing relationships with one another, and even themselves—take us into psychic spaces fiction too rarely invites us into these days. This book is a marvel.”

“Deesha Philyaw's debut collection of stories about Southern Black women struggling to find their place, and their true voice, within the constraints of the church or their circumscribed society, are emotionally powerful. Philyaw's writing is stunning. Each turn of phrase takes your breath away. Her characters range from young women coming of age to middle age women reclaiming their power and discovering their sexuality. This collection was a total joy to read. This is what readers dream of—discovering a new voice; writing that just steals you away into someone else's world.”

Watch a video that includes a reading by and conversation with Deesha Philyaw and the other two finalists for The Story Prize, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Danielle Evans.