Born in Jacksonville, Deesha Philyaw wins the PEN / Faulkner Prize 2021 for fiction

Jacksonville-born Deesha Philyaw won the 2021 PEN / Faulkner Prize for Fiction and uses her limelight to elevate other black women writers.

Philyaw won the award for the highly rated 2020 short story collection The Secret Life of Church Ladies, which was also shortlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. Philyaw wrote the book in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she currently lives, but in an interview with WJCT News she said she was inspired by her memories of growing up in Jacksonville.

“When I started writing fiction here in Pittsburgh 20 years ago, it was the nostalgia for my childhood and early life. My book is called The Secret Lives of Church Ladies and is about the women in my life, especially those inside and outside the Church, ”she said. “And so the book itself is a very southern book.”

Philyaw grew up in Jacksonville and graduated from Stanton College Preparatory School on the Westside. She recently told the Los Angeles Times that she is delighted that two other Stanton graduates, both black women five years her junior, are also successful writers.

Dontiel Moniez’s Milk Blood Heat is a Jacksonville short story collection, and the Chicago Review of Books called it “an unforgettable debut.” Dawnie Walton’s “The Final Revival of Opal and Nev” was described as “refreshing” by the Washington Post.

“I’m inspired and challenged and motivated by something Toni Morrison said. When you get power, use it to empower someone else,” Philyaw said. “The whole purpose of all of this, any award, is how can this benefit anyone other than just me?”

Philyaw is currently working with actress and producer Tessa Thompson to produce The Secret Lives of Church Ladies for television.

You can hear an interview with Dawnie Walton on WJCT News’ First Coast Connect With Melissa Ross on Monday, April 12th at 9 a.m.

Contact Sydney Boles at [email protected] or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.

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