New Fiction Spotlight: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Cover art for the Secret Lives of Church Ladies

“I don’t question God,” declares the titular character of “Eulah,” the first story in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.

“But maybe you should question the people who taught you this version of God. Because it’s not doing you any favors,” the narrator replies.

This exchange is at the crux of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection. The collection is full of hope, heartbreak, hunger, and love. Its protagonists find themselves torn between the demands of church and family and those of their own bodies. They wrestle with their appetites, illicit or otherwise, and usually come out on top in one way or another.

The nine stories that make up The Secret Lives of Church Ladies span a wide array of turbulent and fascinating relationships with mothers, fathers, sisters, and lovers. In “Dear Sister,” a woman writes a letter to the half-sister she’s never met to inform her of the death of their father. In “Snowfall,” the narrator struggles to adjust to both the realities of living in a northern climate and her mother’s disavowal of her relationship with another woman.

Despite these tumultuous relationships, the stories are full of comfort—offered from sister to sister, daughter to mother, and lover to lover. These offerings are often in the form of food, whether it be homemade, fast-food, or frozen.

One of the collection’s most powerful stories, for example, is “Peach Cobbler,” which begins: “My mother’s peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.” Like many in the collection, “Peach Cobbler” deals with infidelity, unhealthy relationships, and the ache to be loved with wry humor and compassion.

Each story is told in the first-person, lending the collection a powerful intimacy. The reader is left feeling as though they really have been let in on the secret lives of these powerful storytellers. In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Philyaw paints nuanced portraits of vulnerable and resilient women who rely upon each other and create communities worth treasuring.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is available now at the Literatures and Languages Library.

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Resource Spotlight: African American Poetry

This week, we are spotlighting one of our databases, which highlights African Americans’ contributions to American literature: African American Poetry

This comprehensive collection allows you to explore the extraordinary early history of African American poetry. This database includes over 3,000 poems from the 18th and 19th centuries, capturing a wide array of subjects and experiences, and relating them as broadsides, ballads, sonnets, Romantic odes, and historical epics. 

And the lives of the poets whose work is featured in African American Poetry were often as riveting as their work. Explore the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, who was abducted from West Africa at a young age, sold as a slave in Boston, and went on to become “one of the major American poets of the Colonial period.” The piercing intelligence, mastery of allusion, and stirring pathos evident in her work led to her becoming the first African-American and the second American woman to publish a volume of poetry.

Or delve into the verses of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a staunch abolitionist, suffragist, and one of the first African-American women to publish a novel (Iola Leroy, in 1892). Her political activism is particularly evident in her poetry, which often showcased the horrors of slavery through the lens of motherhood. Her powerful “The Slave Mother, a Tale of the Ohio,” was based on the same real-life events that inspired Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

The final stanza of Harper’s moving “Bury Me in a Free Land” reads:

 I ask no monument, proud and high

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

African American Poetry also includes the work of Lucy Terry Prince, Jupiter Hammon, James Monroe Whitfield, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and many more early African American poets. Access African American Poetry here and here.

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