Deesha Philyaw has won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her debut story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.
The PEN/Faulkner Foundation announced Philyaw’s victory on its website. The judges for the award said in a statement, “In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her masterful debut collection of stories, Deesha Philyaw speaks in the funny, tender, undeceived voices of her title characters, who have more in common perhaps even than they know, from love to loss to God. In the group portrait that emerges, Philyaw gives us that rarest and most joyful fusion—a book that combines the curious agility of the best short fiction with the deep emotional coherence of a great novel.”
Philyaw’s collection, published by West Virginia University Press, was the winner of the Story Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In a starred review, a critic for Kirkus wrote of the book, “Tender, fierce, proudly Black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.”
Philyaw said she was “deeply honored and thankful” to win the award.
“I wrote The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters who are all, in some way, striving to get free,” she said. “Winning this award during a time of unconscionable loss, grief, and injustice, I’m reminded just how tenuous our freedom is.”
Philyaw will be honored at the virtual PEN/Faulkner award celebration on May 10.
Michael Schaub is a Texas-based journalist and regular contributor to NPR.