“Do not set us up like this is some anomaly that happened,” Deesha Philyaw demands.
Philyaw, the multiple award-winning author of the short story collection The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is adamant that she, along with authors Dawnie Walton and Dantiel W. Moniz are all (to borrow from Cardi B) “regular, schmegular, degular” born and bred Black women from Duval County who happen to be living their dreams in a major way.
Philyaw’s 2020 collection won the 2020/21 Story Prize, the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Moniz’s short story collection, Milk, Blood, Heat was published in February, and Walton’s novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev came out in late March. All of their books are anchored in the experiences of Black womanhood. What it means to grow from Black girl to Black woman. What it means to be oppressed, subjugated, disrespected, unprotected, loved, cherished, desired, sought after and seen.
“If you look at any of my early stuff, it’s like all my main characters are white, rich girls who were so far away from what my life looked like or anybody I knew and what their life looked like,” Moniz said about her work before Milk, Blood, Heat.
Her creative perspective has clearly shifted, and she attributes that to how she has come to perceive herself and Blackness as a whole.
“We have to throw away the idea that whiteness is supreme,” Moniz said. “We also have to throw away that there is a particular type of Blackness.”
Exploration of the intricacies and complexities of Black life from the perspective of Black women are what Deesha, Dantiel and Dawnie do well. It is also intentional.
“For me, my favorite parts to write were the parts that were showing the love and the community between the Black characters,” Walton said of her novel that explores how Black people show up and disrupt white spaces with their presence.
Such disruptions are taken a step further in Philyaw’s collection that boldly boasts from the inside cover flap “…these church ladies are as seductive as they want to be, as vulnerable as they need to be, as unfaithful and unrepentant as they care to be, and as free as they deserve to be.” The stories interrogate theology and the demagoguery of dogma preached from pulpits, mostly by men who condemn women from doing in the dark what they openly get away with in the daylight. The nine stories taking place in many unnamed settings confront and subvert double standards surrounding sex and sexuality and who is allowed to be free to express their most explicit selves.
Philyaw said, “My stories are all rooted in memory in the story of my growing up in Jacksonville and watching Black women do what they do.”
Indeed, the River City is felt and mentioned a few times in the collection with references to Publix potato salad and Bay Street.
In Walton’s novel the influence of Jacksonville is more pronounced from her creation of the Southern rock band, The Bond Brothers, stylized in the image of Jacksonville’s own Lynyrd Skynyrd to a description of Atlantic Beach by one character as “coastal Crackerville.”
“In terms of the things that I write about, Jacksonville, for me, was a very strange, but diverse place,” Walton said. “It’s so massive. There’s so many different influences and things going on that I kind of picked up. It was very fascinating to me, and it’s been fascinating to me well into my 40s. I’m still writing about that stuff I encountered.”
The 11 stories in Moniz’s collection are all set in Florida. Many in Jacksonville, and there’s a recognizable reference to Tallahassee and the club Floyds, where many a foam party has been thrown. Moniz, who grew up around Regency and for the time being still calls Jacksonville home, noted that even though the city is the largest in the contiguous United States by land mass, it is rarely written about.
“We get passed over for, like, Orlando or Miami or The Keys,” Moniz said.
But in writing about Jacksonville she did not want to approach her setting with the proverbial rose-colored glasses on. Instead, she approached the city as an unnamed subject and interrogated its place, position and even contribution in direct connection to her characters.
“I would say that it [Jacksonville] shaped me and prepared me to write from just looking at something and being able to turn it from different angles and understand how multifaceted it is,” Moniz said.
Moniz’s take on Jacksonville in her work is sharp but subtle. Walton and Philyaw’s work is just as acute though rooted in the fondness nostalgia sometimes creates.
Philyaw, who grew up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood currently lives in Pittsburgh. Walton who grew up in Riverside near Five Points lives in Brooklyn, New York. They both attended Stanton College Prep (Philyaw was a senior when Walton was in seventh grade), and they both have lived longer outside of Jacksonville than they lived in the city. However, they both still have fond memories; for Walton it is the music and for Philyaw it is the food.
“The foods from my childhood and my upbringing that I consider part of my background in Jacksonville. . . still shows up for me,” Philyaw said.
That the first line in her story, “Peach Cobbler,” is “My mother’s peach cobbler was so good it made God himself cheat on his wife” makes her specific longing for the sense of community and Black collectiveness that was first forged for her in Jacksonville, all the more visceral. It also makes the fact that she had to call out local media in the national press for the lack of coverage on Walton and Moniz along with herself all the more enraging.
When we spoke, the three Ds were bountiful, fresh-faced, brown-skinned, loc’d, goddesses eager to chat about the place they call home, their work and how they got to where they are.
For Philyaw she went to Stanton and Yale. She’s worked in business and as a teacher and then later as a stay-at-home mom. She came to her writing as an outlet and found herself pursuing the art passionately. Walton and Moniz always loved writing though Walton was more practical in her journey from Stanton to FAMU, working as a journalist for years before finally deciding to pursue the creative side of writing by enrolling in Iowa for her MFA. Moniz attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts before matriculating to FSCJ, then FSU where she finished her undergrad degree in English: Creative Writing, and finally earned her MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“I’ve always written, but the path between, ‘Oh I’m a reader, and I want to write a book,’ to actually being a published author is so opaque,” Moniz said.
Opaque, but not impossible, as Philyaw, Walton and Moniz have all proven. They insist you can be Black, you can be a woman, you can be from Jacksonville, you can write about Southern ways and places that have rarely been explored, and you can be successful.
“The three of us are special, but we’re not the only ones,” Philyaw said confidently.
Walton agreed, adding words of wisdom for the next generation of writers coming out of Jacksonville, “Dream big, little Black girls in Jacksonville. Look at us. I’m so proud of us.”
Jacksonville is proud of you, too.