10 Questions for Deesha Philyaw
- By Franchesca Viaud
The man who is about to ask you to marry him grabs the check from the little tin tray and slides the three fortune cookies toward you.
"All yours," he says.
You grin and he grins back. Three years together, and you have your rituals, your routines. When you have pizza, he eats the crusts you leave behind; when you have Chinese, you claim the fortune cookies he thinks are silly.
You crack open the first cookie and read the fortune inside. It says, A decade from now, the man sitting across from you is going to choke you.
You squint at the tiny piece of paper and read it again. Then you glance up at the man sitting across from you, the man you plan to spend the rest of your life with.
—from "Put Asunder," Volume 64, Issue 4 (Winter 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One friend described my early-early stories as “horny little fiction.” Another friend, who is Jewish, said I wrote with my tshaynikl (Yiddish for “little teapot,” used as slang for female genitalia). That was about twenty years ago, and now that the initial mortification has passed, I’m quite proud of these reviews. But honestly, those stories really weren’t that horny or sexy. “Ellison” was a funny story about a thirty-something single woman, a college professor, who has a one-night stand with a new colleague. The guy is fine as hell, but loves to pontificate and doesn’t have a single brilliant or original thought. And he had the nerve to be a misogynist too. But she sleeps with him anyway. The main character is snarky and a fashionista, the person I imagined I might have become if I hadn’t been a married, stay-at-home mom. The story was inspired by this really fine academic whose path crossed mine. This man was beautiful. And he was wearing this ivory sweater. Just immaculate. And then he opened his mouth, and yikes. Gibberish came out. I only met him the one time, but he made an impression. Not a good one, but an impression nonetheless.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Bernice McFadden, Terry McMillan, ZZ Packer, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gwendolyn Brooks, Fran Ross, Alice Walker, J. California Cooper, Zadie Smith, Robert Jones Jr, Kiese Laymon, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Dawnie Walton, Dantiel W. Moniz, Raven Leilani, Ashley C. Ford, Camonghne Felix, Samantha Irby, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Rion Amilcar Scott, and Paul Beatty.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve been a management consultant and an elementary school teacher. My last job was in corporate communications at a major bank, for three years. Most of my professional life, I’ve been a freelance writer and editor.
What did you want to be when you were young?
Married. Seriously, I thought about having a “nuclear” family more than I thought about having a career, because I didn’t grow up in one. I’m Gen X; I wanted a TV sitcom family. But I did play school a lot with my stuffed animals; I was the teacher. I took attendance and read to them, the whole nine.
What inspired you to write this piece?
After eating some Chinese food, I read the fortunes in the fortune cookies and wondered, “What if the fortune said something ominous and eerily specific to me? What would I do?” And then more particularly I wondered, “What if I’d gotten an explicit warning about [my second, now ex, husband]? What if I had known at the outset that he would be abusive?” The reality is, there were red flags, from the beginning, from literally the first date. But for a variety of reasons, I didn’t heed those red flags. In my story, “Put Asunder,” the pov character has been minimizing the red flags in her relationship for years, right up to the night she and her partner are out at dinner and he is set to propose. At dinner, the fortune cookies give her very detailed warnings about this man, that he will be violent. Perhaps this story is my way of forgiving myself for not heeding the warnings and red flags in my own life. I’ve written very little about my second marriage previously. Coming at it slant—through fiction rather than nonfiction, with speculative elements—allowed me to write such that it didn’t consume or retraumatize me in the process. Instead, it felt freeing, cathartic. So much of the pain of abuse is rooted in the silence, in keeping the secret. Breaking my silence, even fictionally, freed me.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
The South, where I was born and raised, has heavily influenced my writing. Though lately I’ve been writing some stories that could take place almost anywhere in the U.S. At this point, I’ve lived 63% of my life outside of the South (I just did the math), and I currently live in California. But I still identify very much as a Southerner. The voices of my Southern mother and grandmothers show up quite often as narrators and main characters. Their kitchens, their backyards, their pet peeves, their quirks, their heartbreaks, their secrets, and their flaws—I keep coming back to all of this to imbue my characters.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Sometimes I make playlists to accompany whatever I’m writing. My novel-in-progress is set in 2010 and 2011, so I have a playlist of popular R&B, hip hop, and pop songs from those years. When I was working on a story set in the ‘80s, this 1982 song by Stephanie Mills, “Keep Away, Girls” kept playing in my head as I was drafting, so I made a playlist of R&B songs released in 1982. When I was writing a story titled “Fuckboy Museum,” I made a cross-genre playlist of songs where women get revenge on or otherwise rage at terrible men. And sometimes I’ll make a playlist inspired by a character I’m writing, to help me get to know her. In my early years of writing, I had Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and Joni Mitchell’s The Hits on repeat, constantly.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No, my process is mostly chaotic and rife with procrastination. Like right now, I have a deadline. But instead of doing my work, I’m responding to these interview questions even though they aren’t due any time soon. Chaos. Procrastination. That said, I can write anywhere, at home, in restaurants, cafes, whenever. I love writing near water. At the ocean, next to a river or lake, poolside…
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
If I could sing well, I would be a whole problem.
What are you working on currently?
I’m finishing a novel currently titled, The True Confessions of First Lady Freeman. It’s about a middle-aged megachurch pastor’s wife who’s competing in a pageant for middle-aged megachurch pastors’ wives when a scandal breaks out. And yesterday, I finished a semi-experimental flash story about an ancestor complaining to her granddaughter about not keeping a fresh glass of whisky on her altar for her.
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, and 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 and a Baldwin for the Arts Fellow.