Summer 2021 Feature: Deesha Philyaw and Crystal Wilkinson

photo by Vanessa German

Crystal Wilkinson, Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, is the award-winning author of The Birds of Opulence (winner of the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence), Water Street, and Blackberries, Blackberries. She is the recipient of a 2021 O. Henry Prize and a 2020 USA Artists Fellowship. Nominated for the John Dos Passos Award, the Orange Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, she has received recognition from the Yaddo Foundation, Hedgebrook, The Vermont Studio Center for the Arts, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and others. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including most recently in The Kenyon Review, STORY, Agni Literary Journal, Emergence, Oxford American, and Southern Cultures.  Her fourth book, Perfect Black, is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in August 2021. She currently teaches at the University of Kentucky where she is Associate Professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing Program.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and 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, and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Deesha is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow.

DP: It has been quite a year! How are you feeling at the moment?

CW: What a year it’s been! A crazy one from trying to teach in Zoom to mourning the loss of lives. It’s also been a hard time for me as a writer. I can’t speak for anyone else but it’s been difficult for me. I am someone who thrives at residencies because I’m not haunted by the gender pulls, right? My partner does an excellent job with cleaning and doing laundry, washing dishes, and general household duties. I never have to worry about that, but still the way I was raised makes me feel guilty about writing when things need doing in the house. Writing retreats and residencies have become a way for me to be more productive, to have a particular freedom to write, and of course they all shut down during the pandemic and I would have likely been too afraid to attend them anyway. So, yes, this pandemic has done me in, in 50-11 ways with health scares and loss of momentum on projects, but here, now a year later, I feel good, great, in fact. I’m fully vaxxed! Feel like life is swinging in the right direction in so many ways. What about you? You’ve had a tremendous year during all of this! Your good news keeps rolling and I’m so excited for you!  How are you feeling?!

DP: Thank you! And I’m so glad you’re feeling better! I’m a little bit all over the place emotionally, but I have actually been able to write. My daughters are only here part time, so I’ve been alone (aside from my pug) for much of this period of isolation. And that’s been really hard on many levels, but being forced to slow down also gave me a much-needed pause and opportunity to reset my life. For example, my days became less fragmented because there weren’t errands to run (because everything was closed) and I couldn’t visit anybody or have anybody come over. I’m better able to focus on writing when I have blocks of time where I don’t have to leave the house or entertain anyone. And they don’t even have to be large blocks of time. Among the things I’ve written in the past year is an essay about loneliness (for an anthology) and how there’s still, even in a time of pandemic and quarantine, a bit of stigma around loneliness. But for sure, I’ve also been reveling in all the good news, and I really appreciate the recognition for my work and how well it’s been received by readers. Still, there’s a pandemic raging on the other side of the door. So things have felt muted at times. Like, you know how in the record books they put an asterisk when there are some unusual circumstances? I’ve been feeling the emotional equivalent of that. But I’ll be fully vaxxed soon and ready to go — not back to normal because that’s not possible — back to being able to hug people, being able to see people I haven’t seen in over a year. I’m ready to go someplace near the water and rest!

Now that you’re swinging back in the right direction, have you noticed any change in your writing? What you’re writing about, or any changes to your process?

CW: The way writing sits in my body has changed. I had the fall semester off and had a list of plans for my writing but my story had lost importance. Why would the world want to know about the woman I am writing about when the world as we knew it was ceasing existence? I can be anxious and dramatic and my body and mind were on high alert. I was baking, cleaning and gardening but only those things that I needed for existence were getting done. I spent a lot of time in the throes of the news cycle, between the election and the pandemic, I was petrified and then I began to write about the pandemic itself and managed to write one essay about my fear (“Sweet Breath of Another” in Emergence Magazine) and then another about resolving some of that fear (“Covid Kitchen” in Oxford American). But somewhere in between writing those two pandemic essays, I began working on the novel again but perhaps because I wasn’t leaving the house, the writing felt like it was realized more deeply. I don’t mean that the work was necessarily better or that my writing had changed drastically but because I was home, and able to have my academic work and my creative work contained without traveling, without the interruption of leaving my house, though I still missed going to the residencies, I was able to dive more deeply and pick up where I left off which had been normally difficult when I was traveling or teaching. It was there waiting for me in my body, a new muscle memory of sorts that I hadn’t experienced. It feels good to have something new that I can now rely on. I hope it stays.

I know we mostly think of our minds, our creativity, as powering a writing project but writing also lives in the gut and heart and other places in the body too, at least for me. Of course, maybe it depends on the art you’re making, but do you find that different writing projects demand/command something different from both your mind and your physical body?

DP: Wow. You know, I had to sit with this question a bit because you’ve touched on something that I haven’t considered and perhaps haven’t wanted to consider because it’s uncomfortable. I wrote that essay about loneliness last year, and then I did what I tend to do when I write something deeply personal: It leaves me wrung out, I send it on its way to wherever it might land in the world, and I move on. I wrote a flash essay about my father a couple of years ago, and I thought, “Okay, I never have to write about him again. Onward.” But your question made me realize that during the pandemic, instead of gravitating back toward the novel that I’ve been trying to write since 2007 — a novel whose main character is a woman of my generation, Gen X — I’ve written two short stories both with main characters whose experiences are very distant from my own, a first for me. I wrote my first male main character and my first Gen Z main character. And I have to wonder if I created this distance between them and me because I was feeling so distant and disconnected, not only from other people but from my own body. Because touch-deprivation, touch-hunger, is a beast. There were times when it felt like it took on a life of its own. So I could jot notes about my novel’s main character who is not me but who I can, under normal circumstances, easily inhabit in order to write her story. But I couldn’t bear to bring myself into her world, not when I was feeling so alone in mine.

Whew! I feel like I just sang a Black girl’s song, as Ntozake Shange would say. Speaking of which, that’s what Perfect Black felt like to me. Even though we grew up in different places, so much of your collection feels like home to me, the inside me. So thank you. Why was it important to you to structure this work as a hybrid: poetry and prose and visual art?

CW: Wow! I feel like we are diving deep and not holding in any punches with this. Touch-hunger, touch-deprivation, is indeed a beast. I wrote about touch-hunger in my novel The Birds of Opulence, one of the characters craved touch so badly that she was looking for it while she was in an argument with nosy women from her church. The whole time she’s fussing and even when she slaps one of the women who has invaded her privacy, she wants more than anything a bone deep hug and to have the ‘sweet-voiced breath of a woman’s assuring words.’  So I feel what you are saying bone-deep.

Which brings me to your question, though I’ve always been blown away by the fragmented form, writing The Birds of Opulence was the first time that I felt permission to bring the poet, the fiction writer, and the essayist to the page as one, which then in turn freed me up to balk at the convention which of course is nothing new to Black artists. I think that the layers of intimacy that I explore via the speakers of the poems and via memoir and via fiction in Perfect Black were the only way to tell this story of an experience that is mine, close to mine, and not mine simultaneously. It was the only way to tell it and then to have those pieces in conversation with images adds another layer of complexity, at least I hope it does.

While we’re talking about form, I want to hear you talk about form. You write evocative prose; the short stories in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies are magnificent and you inhabit full, rich, lives of Black women in just a few pages; you’re writing for the screen; and working on a novel. How is traversing a variety of forms for you? Is it difficult? Is it easy? Is it necessary?

DP: Thank you! Playing with forms is really necessary because I get bored easily, but also because if I get stuck on one thing, I like to bounce to something else. That’s how Church Ladies came about. I had written ⅔ of a novel and stalled. For years. My agent for my previous book (on co-parenting, co-authored with my ex-husband) suggested that while I was still figuring out my novel, I could build a collection around a few stories I’d been working on. After finishing the Church Ladies manuscript, I realized that I had stalled on the novel not for any reasons to do with structure, but rather because I’d lost interest in the main character as I’d written her. I’d lost interest in her central problem and what was at stake for her. I’m not the person I was when I started writing that story 12 years before. I’ve changed, my perspective and interests have changed. I’ve put a healthy distance between the main character and me. Now, I can now be less precious about her; I can put more at stake for her.

I also like to use form to experiment and subvert. So for example, a real-life phone call inspired the events in my story “Dear Sister,” which I decided to write as an epistolary story. Because that super awkward real-life phone call should’ve been a letter. My story “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” was born out of 10-15 pages written as a traditional narrative, about a woman who has serial affairs with married men. I’d drafted these pages about a year or so before I got a book deal. The story is the last one I wrote for the collection, and I returned to those pages and found that I didn’t have anything new or original to say about these affairs. Would she fall in love with this latest guy? Would he fall in love with her? What if his wife found out? All of those questions felt stale to me, and I didn’t feel drawn to answer them. But I liked the idea of subverting the traditional narrative. What if instead of pitting the two women in an affair triad against each other, the focus was on the man’s role. And what if instead of him setting rules of engagement that the other woman has to abide by, instead of her being on the margins (the literal sidechick) — what if she set the rules of engagement? What if she defined not only her role, but his, in the affair? And what if I make it a literal instruction manual for him? That form created some constraints that drove the narrative content and helped reveal character. At the same time, the form opened up the possibilities of what I could discover and reveal about the woman and the men she engages.

One of the many things I’m looking forward to in adapting these stories for television is the opportunity to revisit these characters, including new visioning of their pasts and futures, beyond the stories as they exist in the collection. In particular, I want to explore the mothers, especially those in “Peach Cobbler” and “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” because in those stories, we only really see them through their daughters’ eyes and primarily through the lens of failure.

I didn’t intend for the mother-daughter theme to run all through my collection, but I realized it after I finished the manuscript. I lost my mother to breast cancer in 2005, and while we made peace before she passed away, clearly there was still some unfinished business and it showed up in my characters and their stories. Mothers and grandmothers run all through Perfect Black as well. From a craft perspective, what are the challenges in writing about what is for many of us the defining relationship of our lives? What are the joys?

CW: First, I’m so sorry about the loss of your mother. I know some time has passed, but I think it takes a while to process the loss of parents, especially our mothers. Don’t you? Not just a while, maybe forever. I think it complicates it even more when we have daughters. This womb to womb to womb connection makes me continuously think about what’s being carried forward and what’s being left behind in both intentional ways and unintentional ways. How much of it is out of our control? How much can we work hard to change? It’s heavy. It’s such a part of what haunts me and my work. Yours too, it seems.

My own mother crossed over in 2016. At the time of Mama’s death, I was writing a book about her struggle with mental health. She spent more than ten years of her life as a young woman in and out of mental institutions. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She endured shock treatments, mistreatment, abuse, and endured giving birth to a child under the cloak of being unwell and having that child being taken away from her. I was her only child.

But my mother was there. I can’t say she was absent. She was always a presence in my life, and for a period of time she physically lived in the same house with us, but I was raised by my grandparents. My grandmother was so afraid of the unpredictability of my mother’s illness that she fiercely protected me from her. And I felt that fear as a constant in my early life. It affected me deeply. It has affected my work. It still affects me now. She wasn’t allowed to love me in the ways she wanted to.

My mother and I had a lot of unresolved issues, of course. I don’t think I ever forgave her illness for taking her away from me, but I was also loved by her so deeply. And so, like life, it’s a very complicated thing and at times an all-encompassing thing. I always describe my mother’s love as ‘thick love,’ the kind of thick love that Toni Morrison speaks about in Beloved.

Mama knew I was writing a book about her and she was so excited about it. She always asked me to hurry up because she wanted to dress up and go with me on a book tour and I regret that we never had a chance to do that. She died from heart disease and kidney disease, in part from all those years of psychotropic drugs. I still haven’t finished that memoir. When I went back to work on the book, I realized that underneath the writing was a rudder of anger that was pushing it forward. I never saw it before, but when she died the anger was replaced by a well of grief and I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile the two on the page. I think I need to start over, and I think I will when it’s time. The essay that began this book appears here.

But yes, the mother/daughter/granddaughter/grandmother relationships appear all through Perfect Black in both very intentional ways and in ways that I didn’t realize during the initial writing. When I sit down to intentionally write about these relationships it’s very difficult for me. I freeze. I cry. I resist. I worry if I’m getting it right. If I’m paying proper respect to them, to myself. But the joy comes in those moments when I’m writing freely, with peace and confidence, sometimes with another intent and when I go back there they are in a piece that I didn’t think was even about them, shining in all their glory. And there is joy in that. I love those moments when I’ve written about them in some slanted way, when I’m not trying but suddenly there I am in the thick of it all, standing at that honest place on the page where I can see my mother and grandmother and other women ancestors behind me and see my daughters and granddaughters in front of me. Sometimes I think that is the purest of joys in my writing.

We write fiction, but we also know we have these threads of truth in our work, about family, especially these women. Your stories are so very womanish and I see mothers and daughters and other women. I see myself too in your ladies. I want to hear you talk about how you feel or anticipate feeling about taking them from the dimension of the imagination on the page to a more three-dimensional form on the screen. I’m not sure where you are in the process, but how does it feel to have a character that you have created, imagined on the page, who also has a thread of your real mother and then to see that character embodied inside a woman actor who is playing this imagined version of your mother, yourself, a sister? How are you preparing for that moment? I think we are able to hide and to expose in fiction, but what happens when there they are, on the screen, with your words both lived and imagined on the screen?

DP: Oh, àṣẹ, I think I will process the loss of my mother forever. And I’m very sorry about your loss as well. What you said about reconciling the rudder of anger and the well of grief in your book about your mother, listen…  Anger and grief would take me right under if I tried to tell my mother’s story in its entirety now. In the wake of 2020, I don’t have the emotional wherewithal for that. The anger and grief I feel now is directed at the ways my mother suffered–from sexual violence, abuse, colorism, all of religion and patriarchy’s weapons. Despite this suffering, she loved me with a “thick love,” too. I used to take that for granted, but I don’t anymore. I’ve written one essay about our relationship, and it felt so…confessional. Almost like a betrayal, even though I know, intellectually, that it’s not.

Having daughters absolutely complicates things, in so many ways. For one, anything I fix my mouth to declare about mothers comes right back at me! Like, this occurred to me a couple of years ago: Our mothers are contradictions. And I got so excited imagining an essay about my mother, or maybe a short story, with this idea at the heart of it. And within seconds, I started to wonder what kind of contradictions my daughters see in me. This helps me to be mindful of the grace I show my mother (and mothers, in general) on the page, the same grace I hope my daughters would show me. I want to tell the truth (in fiction too) and show grace. That’s the craft challenge for me. That “honest place on the page” you talked about is such a beautiful, deep well of joy.

The TV adaptation of my book is still in the very, very early stages of development. The best way I can describe the feeling is to borrow words from an essay I wrote not too long ago: “a shout of celebration and wail of sorrow live side by side in my throat.” I feel alternately giddy and weepy as I’m jotting notes, remembering, thinking about the possibilities of connecting the characters across stories, moving them through time–the past before the stories as I wrote them, and the future beyond. And what’s surprised me most is the childhood hand-clap game songs and double-dutch songs that come to mind as I’m imagining; Black girlhood is looming large right now, and that makes me feel wistful. It’s also a reminder that I survived, that so many of us did survive, and I celebrate us. Down the road, when it all comes together on the screen, I imagine that I will feel that pure joy that you talked about, immense joy at seeing us, generations of us, in our fullness. And I know my mother would’ve been over the moon proud and happy to see these stories adapted.

At the same time, I’ll also feel a bit tender because it will be a moment of reckoning, or rather a series of moments of reckoning, with the past, the present, and the truth, similar to the way I felt while writing the story “Jael,” which is, in part, about girls being preyed upon. Much of what happens to us is shrouded in secrecy, so bringing it into the light makes me feel relieved and vindicated, but also a bit mournful because I’m reminded that so many of us, including my mother, never got free, never got justice, never knew peace. And today, whether it’s predators, medical racism, schools pushing us out, intimate partners killing us, or cops killing us, tomorrow still isn’t promised for Black girls and women.

Given this, are you hopeful? I try to be. What gives you hope, as a Black woman in this country, as a Black woman writer in this country?

CW: Àṣẹ, indeed. Your line: “a shout of celebration and wail of sorrow live side by side in my throat” literally took my breath away. That’s a truth that goes bone-deep. A tender beauty in that phrase that holds both sorrow and hope. I love that our brother Kiese Laymon said recently that Black people deserve beautiful sentences. We certainly do. We need all the beauty that the world can offer us. And yes, Black women continue to stand in the face of all you mentioned, medical racism, schools pushing us out, abuse–present and past, disrespect, predators. Yet, still we rise. Right? In the words of Maya, we still rise.

This past year, I thought death and violence would swallow me whole. So many friends and relatives, sisters I’ve never known. Gone. Broken. Dispirited. Beat. Raped.

Black women’s bodies and minds and spirits have been under assault for centuries, yet our resilience in the face of it all gives me hope time and time again.

A nod, a smile, a shout, a dance, a laugh so hard you can’t breathe, a poem, a sister’s head on your shoulder, a gentle hand on your wrist, a sentence filled with so much beauty and truth, a fist held high up in the air. All that power can never be denied.

Perfect Black

Crystal Wilkinson

Foreword by Nikky Finney

Illustrated by Ronald W. Davis August 2021

Crystal Wilkinson combines a deep love for her rural roots with a passion for language and storytelling in this compelling collection of poetry and prose about girlhood, racism, and political awakening, imbued with vivid imagery of growing up in Southern Appalachia. read Change Seven’s review here.

The Secret Life of Church Ladies

Deesha Philyaw

September 2020

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. 

Abby Freeland is editor at large at the University Press of Kentucky.