In another first for any book from a university press, Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has received the PEN/Faulkner Award, given annually to the best work of fiction by a living US writer. Previous recipients of the PEN/Faulkner range from established luminaries (think Updike, Patchett, DeLillo) to leading newer voices like recent winners Chloe Aridjis and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was one of 419 submissions this year from 170 publishers.
“I’m deeply honored and thankful to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction,” said Deesha Philyaw in her acceptance statement. “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.”
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was previously named a finalist for the National Book Award, and it was the first book from a university press (or small press of any kind) to win the Story Prize. Philyaw’s collection is also a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in the first fiction category, with the winner to be announced on April 16, and it is currently being adapted for the screen for HBO Max.
The PEN/Faulkner Award has several connections to West Virginia. John Knowles of Fairmont won the Faulkner Foundation’s original prize, then known as the William Faulkner Foundation Award, for A Separate Peace. And the award in its present iteration was founded by Mary Lee Settle, a novelist born in Charleston whose fiction was often set in West Virginia. The staff at West Virginia University Press are proud to honor and extend this prestigious award’s relationship to our state, and we’re grateful to Deesha Philyaw for trusting us with her extraordinary book.
The PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony will be held online on May 10, with free registration available here. The event’s sponsors include West Virginia University.