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Jacksonville Native Deesha Philyaw Wins 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Deesha Philyaw
Courtesy Deesha Philyaw

Jacksonville native Deesha Philyaw has won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and is using her spotlight to uplift other Black women writers. 

Philyaw won the award for the highly reviewed 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 first started writing fiction 20 years ago here in Pittsburgh, it was the nostalgia for my childhood and my early life. My book is called The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, and it's about the women in my life in particular, those in and out of 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 told the Los Angeles Times recently that she’s delighted that two other Stanton graduates, both Black women five years her junior, are also achieving success as writers. 

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

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

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

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

Contact Sydney Boles at, or on Twitter at@sydneyboles.

Sydney manages community engagement programs like WJCT News' Coronavirus Texting Service. Originally from the mountains of upstate New York, she relocated to Jacksonville from Kentucky, where she reported on Appalachia's coal industry.