“Writing characters who break all sorts of rules”: An interview with Deesha Philyaw

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Hailed by Electric Lit as one of “24 New and Forthcoming Books That Celebrate Black Lives,” The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is Deesha Philyaw’s “tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful” (Kirkus, starred review) debut collection. Here Philyaw talks with Holly Mitchell of Vesto PR.

When did you start writing this book?

The first story I completed was “Eula,” and I started it in 2014. But at that time, I didn’t think of it as the start of a collection. There were other stories, like “Jael,” that started with just a name or an idea or a line of dialogue that I sat with for a few years before developing them as stories.

At what point did you know your focus would be on church ladies?

In 2007, I started working on a novel in which the main character is a church lady, a pastor’s wife. I worked on the novel off and on for the next eight or nine years, but I just kept stalling. From time to time, I’d turn my attention to short stories, and they all featured a church lady or someone who is what I call church lady adjacent, meaning there’s someone she’s close to who is heavily influenced by the church. I grew up in the church, and these were the women who informed my understanding of womanhood and how to be (or not be) in the world. Although I wasn’t surprised that they showed up on the page, it wasn’t intentional, at that point.Read More »

July roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is named to Library Journal‘s list “Black Voices Matter 2020” and called one of “12 Must-Read Books by Black Authors” in Amazon Book Review, which says: “The stories of these women and their friendships come alive, beating with tenderness and imperfection, and build upon one another to create a beautiful melody of female determination.”

Philyaw is profiled in a cover story in Pittsburgh Current, where her book is called “full of lived-in humanity, warmth, and compassion.” She’ll launch The Secret Lives of Church Ladies as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series, cohosted with the Carnegie Library and White Whale Books, on September 3.

Foreword Reviews praises Joanna Eleftheriou’s “heartfelt and heartrending” This Way Back, saying “the essays entice every sense.”Read More »

Summer signings: Early announcements of some forthcoming books

Twice a year we share our seasonal catalog announcing titles to be published in the next six months. But WVU Press’s acquisitions editors are always at work (even in a pandemic!) signing books where publication is even further out. In this space we’re pleased to share early news of some highly anticipated projects that have come under contract this summer, with publication expected in the next year or two. Working on a book of your own? Please feel encouraged to contact one of our acquisitions editors.

Eminent historian Joe Trotter has signed a contract for a collection of his essays on Black workers and the Appalachian coal industry. Look for it in fall 2021.

Anne T. Lawrence has submitted her oral history of the Appalachian Mine Wars, based on interviews she conducted as a student in the early ‘70s. We’ll publish next year to mark the Blair Mountain Centennial, with a foreword by Catherine Venable Moore and an afterword by Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. Catherine announces the book here.

Lou Martin at Chatham University has agreed to write a short history of Appalachian activism, from the Mine Wars to the teachers’ strike.Read More »

The shimmer of camaraderie: A conversation between novelists Lana K. W. Austin and Karen Salyer McElmurray

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In this guest post, Lana K. W. Austin, author of our Like Light, Like Music, talks with Karen Salyer McElmurray, author of Wanting Radiance, new from the University of Kentucky Press.

LA: Congratulations on the publication of Wanting Radiance! From the opening line where Miracelle described her mother Ruby’s hands as magic, I knew your novel was magical, too. It’s a lyrical powerhouse, pure poetry in prose. Please tell us about this ebullient story’s origin.

KSM: If I think about that phrase—“pure poetry in prose”—then I suppose Wanting Radiance began when I was twelve years old and listening to Vicky, the girl across the road from my granny’s house, play a twelve-string guitar and sing songs she’d written. Those songs settled inside my heart with a kind of longing I’ve felt all my life. It’s a longing that belongs to Miracelle Loving, this novel’s main character. The novel also began as a short story, one I wrote when I was an MFA student at the University of Virginia. The story was called “The Black Cat,” and it was set in a diner and gas station a great-aunt of mine owned. And the novel, of course, had its origins in fortune-telling. When I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, a long-term relationship ended, and I was devastated. I’d always loved Tarot cards and the I-Ching, so my visit to a local fortune teller became a way to assuage my grief.  I heard about a woman who told fortunes via reading the shadows in photographs and I went to see her. She lived in a trailer in a stretch of woods outside of Asheville, and I parked my truck and climbed a little hill to the trailer. I knocked and knocked until I heard her voice, calling me inside. Not a soul was in the living room, and the voice led me back to her bedroom. She was a gigantic woman. Huge. And she was laid up in a big bed with a velvet headboard. She’d been shot years ago by her lover, at which point she took up fortunes. My own fortune, she said as she studied the photographs I’d brought, was complicated. Look at this shadow, she said as her fingers traced my lover’s face and the tree branches behind him.  There’s a lot you don’t know. I allowed that this was true. Years later, I picked “The Black Cat” story back up again and found that it opened up like a magic box. Inside there was a woman who didn’t trust love who was looking for her past. There was a fortune teller who’d been shot.  There was a mystery that needed to be solved.Read More »

June roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

In an impressive set of prepublication reviews, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is called “triumphant” in Publishers Weekly and earns a starred review from Kirkus, which enthuses: “Tender, fierce, proudly black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.” Deesha Philyaw’s book is named one of “24 New and Forthcoming Books That Celebrate Black Lives” in Electric Lit, and the author appears in Pittsburgh City Paper.

Joanna Eleftheriou’s “winning and contemplative” This Way Back also receives a starred review from Kirkus. It’s called “intimate and a touch mournful, most powerfully so when the author writes about her sexuality.”

The Painted Forest is reviewed in Rain Taxi: “Gorgeously written and meticulously researched, it would be perfect for lovers of creative nonfiction—especially those with an affinity for nature writing and ecocriticism.”

USA Today recommends a book from every state, selecting Chuck Kinder’s Last Mountain Dancer—with its “local legends, family stories, [and] regional history”—for West Virginia.Read More »

Pedagogical care on the COVID campus: New resources from the authors in our higher education series

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In this guest post, Cyndi Kernahan (author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Classroom) and Jessamyn Neuhaus (author of Geeky Pedagogy) unveil Pedagogies of Care, a free multimedia resource from the authors in our series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Be careful what you wish for.

After years—literally, years—of advocating, negotiating, and campus-politicking, each of us got some exciting news this spring: we were appointed director of our colleges’ small teaching and learning center. In Cyndi’s case, the position came concurrently with the creation of the center itself, while Jessamyn assumed leadership of a center sorely in need of revitalization.

At last, here was the professional opportunity for which we’d worked so hard! Passionate about teaching and learning and about the scholarship of teaching and learning, we relished the chance to facilitate educational development efforts with our faculty.

And then, well, you know what happened.Read More »

Early summer roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

WVU Press makes its first appearance on NPR’s Fresh Air (a significant publicity milestone!), where Nancy McKinley’s novel-in-stories St. Christopher on Pluto receives a favorable review. “Like the best comic fiction, it’s constructed out of insider social observations that sting as much as they amuse.”

A New York Times feature on contributing writers’ favorite restaurants quotes Candace Nelson on Fairmont’s Country Club Bakery, and mentions her WVU book The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll.

As the higher education community reflects on the past semester—and makes plans for the next—WVU’s books about teaching and learning continue to shape the conversation: 

  • In a major Los Angeles Review of Books essay on “Universities in the Age of COVID-19,” Ryan Boyd writes that Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope “make[s] it clear what the stakes are, and which path we should sprint down, right now, if we want to live and maybe even thrive.” Gannon talks with Inside Higher Ed about grading during the pandemic, and appears on the Phoenix Thriving podcast.
  • Jessamyn Neuhaus, author of Geeky Pedagogy, writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the challenges that introverts face when engaging in remote teaching.
  • In Disability Studies Quarterly, Thomas Tobin and Kirsten Behling’s Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone earns praise for “sparking new ways of conceptualizing and creating inclusive access.”
  • And Joshua Eyler, author of How Humans Learn, joins editors and reporters from the Chronicle of Higher Education in a webinar on “Better Student Engagement during Covid-19.” The event is June 5, and registration is here.

Read More »

Too explicit to name: An excerpt from Storytelling in Queer Appalachia

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One of the first collections of scholarship at the intersection of LGBTQ studies and Appalachian studies, Storytelling in Queer Appalachia, edited by Hillery Glasby, Sherrie Gradin, and Rachael Ryerson, amplifies voices from the region’s valleys, hollers, mountains, and campuses. It blends personal stories with scholarly and creative examinations of living and surviving as queers in Appalachia. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the collection, available now and shipping from our site, by contributor Matthew Thomas-Reid, collaborating with Michael Jeffries and Logan Land.

Down in the holler, I am a boy who is good to his momma: an eccentric who listens to classical music and brings a delicacy to every potluck. Being a boy good to his momma, I come from a tradition of the queer [phonetically kwar] in Appalachia. There is a rich history of the queer [kwar] in my community, from my lifelong bachelor great uncle to my father’s “rebel younger brother,” who died under unknown circumstances at the height of the AIDS crisis. Schooled in the southern Appalachian Brushy Mountains of North Carolina, queer [kwar] identity narratives abounded while queer [kwir] identities were marginal, simply too explicit to name in anything louder than a whisper.Read More »

Untangling famine from pandemic means untangling food from capital

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Stian Rice is a food systems geographer and author of Famine in the Remaking: Food System Change and Mass Starvation in Hawaii, Madagascar, and Cambodia, new from West Virginia University Press. Here he shares perspective on the entwined crises of pandemic and famine.

As the curtains opened on 2020, famine watchers warned that 135 million people in 55 countries were experiencing acute food insecurity and an elevated risk of starvation. War in Yemen, an economic crisis in Zimbabwe, and a locust plague in East Africa were set to repeat as the defining challenges for the new year. In the words of World Food Program (WFP) executive director David Beasley, “2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two.” And then COVID-19 stole the show. Since then, quarantine and stay-at-home orders have strangled food supply chains. The collapse of oil prices has left some governments without revenue to feed their populations. Tens of millions, dependent on daily wages, face uncertainty over their next meals. School closures have deprived 368 million children of meals and snacks. And the strain is beginning to show: looting, protests, and ration line stampedes are being reported from Latin America to South Asia. Last week the WFP nearly doubled its estimate to 265 million facing acute hunger by the end of the year. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture in developed countries has become a theater of the absurd as farmers plow under crops, breeders kill off millions of surplus chickens, and dairy operations dump spoiled milk into fragile watersheds.Read More »