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05May

Short story writer Deesha Philyaw: ‘I wanted to challenge the church’s obsession with sex’

The author of the acclaimed The Secret Life of Church Ladies on the Black American Christian community, sexual shame and coming to terms with her queerness

When asked to choose their favourite story in The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw’s acclaimed debut collection, most people, the author tells me, say Peach Cobbler. This simultaneously funny and punch-in-the-guts-devastating tale focuses on Olivia, a young girl in the American south who believes the local pastor to be God, because when he visits she overhears her mother screaming “Oh, God!” from the bedroom.

Central to the story is the “best cobbler in the world” – a fruit pie that Olivia’s mother bakes for her lover each week, but which Olivia is forbidden from tasting. Philyaw set out, she tells me from her home in Pennsylvania, to write about “the Blackest dessert”, and peach cobbler came to mind. “In fact, the Blackest dessert is not peach cobbler, it’s pound cake,” she remarks in retrospect. “But I think my brain knew that there was more to peach cobbler than just the Blackness – there’s the textures, the sweetness, the sensuality of it.”

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