September 30, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Deesha Philyaw's story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is an auspicious debut, one of the year's finest books.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A collection of luminous stories populated by deeply moving and multifaceted characters. . . . Tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root."
Freedom, infidelity, body positivity, grief, resilience, sex . . . these themes drive the stories in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. As I wrote their stories (and in some cases, afterwards), the characters and their dilemmas brought to mind certain songs. For some characters, the song is their theme music. Other songs run the gamut, from celebratory to confessional.
“If Only You Knew,” Patti LaBelle
Caroletta is in love with her best friend, the titular character in “Eula.” Both women are religious, ostensibly virginal, and waiting for Mr. Right, as prescribed by their evangelical Christian beliefs. In the meantime, they share an annual secret dalliance, but Eula doesn’t know — or perhaps, won’t allow herself to consider — the depths of her friend’s feelings for her. This song captures the ache and bittersweetness of Caroletta’s secret.
“Fuck the Pain Away,” Peaches
In “Not Daniel,” two people meet by chance when their mothers are neighbors in a hospice care facility. Coping with grief that is both slippery and shape-shifting, the pair find momentary comfort in each other’s bodies. The chorus of this song, a repetition of that blunt title, is hard-driving and unrelenting. Grief can be like that too.
“We are Family,” Sister Sledge
After their father dies, four half-sisters write a letter to a fifth sister they’ve never met,in the epistolary story “Dear Sister.” Despite decades of distance and their father’s waywardness, the sisters (well, most of them) consider the new sister to be family, one of them. “We are Family” is the quintessential sisterhood jam.
“Wipeout,” The Fat Boys and The Beach Boys
“O-o-h Child,” The Five Stairsteps
Olivia and Trevor, two teens in “Peach Cobbler,” talk about the video for “Wipeout.” My first concert experiences were at Fresh Fest, an annual tour featuring acts like Run-DMC, Whodini, and The Fat Boys. This story took me back to that time, the mid-late 80s. Among that era’s hip hop royalty, The Fat Boys were the clown princes.
This story also took me even further back, to my early childhood, and “O-o-h Child,” which was a personal anthem of sorts for little me. This song articulates the melancholy that Olivia felt and that I sometimes felt, long before I knew the word “melancholy.” It’s a song that manages to be hopeful, but also a little moody and dark, not unlike a 70s TV cop show theme song.
“Sadie,” The Spinners
In “Jael,” the 14-year-old title character has a crush on Sadie, the sexy preacher’s wife. Jael thinks of her as “Sweet Sadie” in a nod to the Spinners’ classic, an ode to hard-working young mothers. Fun fact: the late Tupac Shakur sampled “Sadie” for his “Dear Mama.”
“Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
“Summer Madness,” Kool & The Gang
A crab boil and a two-step will always cure what ails you. Nostalgia for summer reigns in the sweet final scene of “Snowfall,” a story which opens with one of my favorite first lines in the Secret Lives collection: Black women aren’t meant to shovel snow. In the last scene, the main characters dance to “Summertime” (1991) which samples “Summer Madness” (1974). This is fitting given the intergenerational drama at the heart of this story.
“You Gots to Chill,” EPMD
When Lyra and Eric first meet in “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” she mis-hears his name, thinking he said, “Erick Sermon” (it’s Eric Turman). Erick Sermon is half of the hip-hop duo EPMD. Lyra really needed to chill when her insecurities and pessimism caused her to push Eric away.
“Fall In Love (Your Funeral),” Erykah Badu
Femme fatales Erykah Badu and the narrator in “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” warn men that falling in love with them will lead to “slow sangin' and flower bringing.” In both the song and the story, a confident woman controls the narrative.
“Forever Mine,” The O’Jays
Eddie Levert is Mama’s favorite singer, and in the twilight of dementia, each day she imagines that he’s coming over, hence the story title, “When Eddie Levert Comes.” The O’Jays were my late mother’s favorite group, and the classic ballad “Forever Mine” is my favorite song of theirs. I knew from the outset that I wanted to end this story with Eddie’s plea for his lover to stay.
“OMG,” Sampa the Great
Never underestimate your highness
Dripped in melanin, Galaxy's finest
The Secret Lives collection explores Black women’s audaciousness and the ways we navigate religious teachings and traditions that become obstacles. This song’s lyrics, hand claps, and infectious, pulsing beat reflect and celebrate this boldness.
Deesha Philyaw's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney's, the Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight, and elsewhere. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, she currently lives in Pittsburgh with her daughters.