Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was announced the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction 2021 on April 6, 2021.

The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is awarded annually by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation to the authors of the year’s best works of fiction by living US American citizens. One of the previous winners for the award, first handed out in 1981, is Imbolo Mbue who received it for her debut novel Behold The Dreamers in 2017.

The judges for the 2021 edition are Charles Finch, Bernice L. McFadden, and Alexi Zentner and they announced the finalists on March 2. These came from 419 eligible novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2020 calendar year submitted. From the finalists, there was one writer of African descent, Deesha Philyaw, featuring. Yesterday it emerged that Philyaw’s book The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (WVU Press) is the winner.

“Choosing from among our five exceptional finalists was a supremely difficult task for our judges,” said Louis Bayard, PEN/Faulkner Awards Committee Chair. “But we are confident that Deesha Philyaw’s short story collection is a book that people will be reading and talking about and learning from for many years to come.”

“I’m deeply honored and thankful to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction,” said Philyaw. “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. Winning this award during a time of unconscionable loss, grief, and injustice, I’m reminded just how tenuous our freedom is. I’m reminded of and encouraged by Toni Morrison’s words: ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’ On the other side of this time of reckoning and the fight ahead, may we all be free.”

As the author of the winning book, Philyaw will receive a $15,000 prize while the other finalists receive $5,000. They will be honoured at the annual PEN/Faulkner Award Celebration on Monday, May 10.