The Masters Review Blog

May 7

Litmag Roadmap: South Carolina

We’re off to the east coast! Melissa is back with a roundup of the great literary magazines the Palmetto State has to offer. Come with us!

Before diving into the great Palmetto State, we wanted to take a second to recognize the positive impact that social distancing has had on. Becky Tuch at Lit Mag News Roundup created a list of 73 new literary magazines, most of them based online (and others based abroad!) that you should absolutely check out while you’re waiting for your mid-road-trip oil change. All tuned up? Let’s get back on the road to the historic southeastern state of South Carolina, which boasts just four main lit mags, all top-of-the-line:


The journal of the University of South Carolina, Yemassee has been going through a glow-up period for the past few years. They now offer not only fiction and poetry contests but a chapbook contest as well (pro tip: address the editor of your specialty in your cover letter!). Cute bonus—you can buy a “Mystery Pack” of random past print magazines. We love a good lit mag grab bag.


Now published out of the College of Charleston, Illuminations was once a local literary magazine and for some time produced abroad—edited from England, Japan, and Tanzania until its return to South Carolina in 1996. It has some famous fingerprints on it (you’ll find traces of Flannery O’Connor, Ezra Pound, Nadine Gordimer, and Tim O’Brien in its archives) and is primarily a poetry magazine, so if you can land a story or an essay here it feels extra-extra-special.


Crazyhorse is another rambling lit mag that found a home at the College of Charleston, getting its start in Los Angeles and spending several decades in Kentucky and Arkansas before landing in South Carolina. You may have heard of its Crazyshorts! short-short fiction contest—where only pieces 500 words and under are allowed—or its annual cash prizes in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Perhaps most admirable about Crazyhorse is its dedication to both print and online forms, seeking only to expand both no matter how much times change. Submissions close May 31st for this season so giddyup!

South Carolina Review

Of the South Carolina lit mags, SCR is the one that most strongly upholds its roots as southern. Originally founded at Furman University, SCR now lives at Clemson University, swirling contemporary NCAA-level hype with history and literary lore in one big orange tide. Submissions are pretty simple: they take fiction, nonfiction, and poetry through Submittable (and also by May 31st!).

by Melissa Hinshaw

May 5

Craft: The Volta in Flash Fiction

With our Flash Fiction Contest wrapping up at the end of this month, we thought we should return to this craft essay on flash fiction, first published last November: In poetry, the volta is a common technique: found often in sonnets, the turn can be found now in a multitude of poetic forms. Unsurprisingly, the volta can be found in flash fiction, too, as the forms are often closely linked. In this craft essay, editor-in-chief Cole Meyer examines in depth the use of the volta in Ann Beattie’s 1983 neorealist “Snow.”

The volta, the turn, the fulcrum, in poetry, is a well-established technique: the shift in focus, the swerve in direction. But no one seems to talk about the volta in flash fiction. That moment, often near the end, when the skilled flash fiction writer takes your stomach and flips it inside out with her shift toward the heart of what she’s writing about. An example of what I mean may help.

In Ann Beattie’s “Snow”, first published in Vanity Fair in 1983 and later collected in Where You’ll Find Me, the narrator reflects on the time she spent in a house in the countryside with a former lover. The story begins, “I remember the cold night you brought in a pile of logs and a chipmunk jumped off as you lowered your arms.” This line is important, not just in the usual This is the opening line of a story way, but for the turn that comes later. It establishes two things: the first-person direct address, and the distance between the point-of-telling for the narrator and the moment of narrative. That distance is key. We know that the narrator has had room to reflect on this moment, that she has gained a kind of insight that will be invaluable for the story. This prepares us for the turn.

The first half of the flash is idyllic. We see images of “white-gold trellises” and “knee-deep snow” and her lover in a “white towel turban, like a crazy king of the snow.” These are happy, intimate memories. Their visitors, inspired by the fireplace, “tell amazing stories.” The final line before the turn reads, “The world outside the car looked solarized.” Right before Beattie flips the story, she gives us one final look at the memory too happy and serene to be entirely real: it’s overexposed, too bright out there in the fresh snow.

“You remember it differently.” And here we’ve arrived at the turn. Four short words that turn the story in a new direction. We knew this time at the house in the country would end; we knew it couldn’t all be so lovely and romantic. We knew it from the first line of the story. Something had to give. “You remember it differently.” The other side to the story. “The cold,” we’re told the lover remembers, “settled in stages.” The language here becomes muted. “Black,” and “dark,” and the amazing stories their visitors had told become “the same stories people always tell.” Even the details the narrator allows herself to remember after the volta, not from her lover’s perspective, have this same almost bleak quality: Their old neighbor Allen has died. The day she visited it rained and rained. Their old house only hosts “three or four crocus,” and she feels “embarrassed for them.” And in the story’s conclusion, mention is made at last “of the snowplow that seemed always to be there, scraping snow off our narrow road.”

The volta in “Snow” is dependent on this masterful control of language, the carefully selected details, the two sides to the story. But voltas can be utilized in any number of ways. In character, as in Aimee Bender’s “Appleless”, in which the first sentence of (almost) every paragraph uses either the singular or plural first person, (“The rest of us…”, “We suck water off the meat,” “We close in; we ring her”) and the final two paragraphs shift to the third person (“She cries through it all,” and “She never comes by the orchard again”). In tense, as in Kevin Leahy’s “Simple Physics”, which moves from past tense in collective memory, to present tense in the singular memory: “Here’s what I alone remember:”. They can even occur between the title of the story and the very first sentence, as in Lydia Davis’s “City People” which begins, “They have moved to the country.”


An exercise:

In “Snow,” Beattie gives us the skeleton of a story: “Somebody grew up. Fell in love, and spent a winter with her lover in the country.” Give the skeleton flesh, make it your own. Write the story first from the narrator’s perspective, and then from her lover’s. Where do the details diverge? How can you reconcile the two versions to make a narrative that hinges on the differences?

by Cole Meyer




May 3

New Voices: “Pearl (c.1250—1400)” by Kwan Ann Tan

In Kwan Ann Tan’s “Pearl (c. 1250—1400)”, this week’s New Voices story, a pearl changes hands over time, from the fisherman who found it, to a local jeweler, and more. A hundred and fifty years pass in the blink of an eye, but you don’t want to miss this ending.

The craftsman tucks the pearl away until he is too old to work with his hands, in which case he directs his disciple to make the greatest gift that their city will ever send to the emperor, a pearl hairpin set with gold.

The pearl stares back at the fisherman from the guts of a large fish. It is as big as a lychee, pinkish flesh surrounded by just as much red skin. The fisherman sells it to the local jeweler, in exchange for a sum of money that could feed his entire family for a month, and then promptly loses it at gambling. The jeweler falls asleep with the pearl close to his chest, as he does all his most precious jewels. His wife’s lover slips a knife between his ribs, just below the glinting curve of the pearl and with so much passion that later on, they find shards of turquoise and amber in his heart. The pearl passes into the hands of thieves, and a few more are murdered for it. Finally, it reaches a trader from the Great Steppes. Before he can ferry it to Europe, where they pay double and in gold for exotic playthings like these, he pays a visit to an old friend, a master craftsman. Over tea, the pearl slips out of his bag, and the craftsman pounces on it. The tradesman refuses to sell.

To continue reading “Pearl (c. 1250-1400)” click here.


Apr 29

New Voices Revisited: “Lions in the House” by Beejay Silcox

In celebration of our ongoing Flash Fiction Contest, judged this year by the spectacular Stuart Dybek, this month’s New Voices Revisited brings us back to the 2017 second place finalist, the first year of our flash contest, “Lions in the House” by Beejay Silcox. Through a discussion of nighttime noises in a house, this story reveals how two people in a relationship experience their anxieties differently.

“He’s never heard the lions in the house—this man, this husband, your husband. He has always slept in a way you can’t understand.”

There are lions in the house. Two, maybe three—it’s hard to tell. Filling the dark with their breathy territorial huffing, their stretched yawns and big-cat rumble.

It’s simple physics, acoustic trickery—the zoo is directly across the park and the sound carries. But there’s nothing simple about lions in the house. When you leave the windows open there’s something about the way the noise leaps around that makes it seem as if the lions are behind you in this new, old house—stalking you from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom, a kind of ventriloquism. If you close the windows, you can still hear them pawing against the glass.

No matter what you tell yourself, there’s that ever-open caveman eye in your brain that’s been waiting and watching—just for this, just for lions in the house. A hot-blooded part of you that always knew they were coming. And on nights when they do not come, when there’s wind or traffic or drunk street noise, this house with its rheumatic floorboards and recalcitrant hinges knows they will be back. It aches and strains and cracks its bones, and you’re awake, you’re awake, you’re awake.

He’s never heard the lions in the house—this man, this husband, your husband. He has always slept in a way you can’t understand. A careless sleep: reckless, unvigilant. When you first met you envied it, but now it terrifies you. How he can sleep through fire alarms and police sirens. How he once left a gas burner hissing and slept, as room-by-room, the air filled with oven fumes. How he can even sleep through your asthma attacks, that brutal underwater heaving that is so loud in your blood you can feel it echo for days.

To read the rest of “Lions in the House” click here.

Apr 26

New Voices: “Paper Fan” by Dinah Cox

The early summer heat can be oppressive already, so why not cool off with Dinah Cox’s “Paper Fan,” this week’s New Voices story. Lauren’s roommate Angelique—overbearing, over-caring, perhaps over the line—has an idea for a fan made from 3D-printed parts. Read on, as long as you promise not to steal her idea!

Angelique has invited me to her uncle’s lake house in order to stage an intervention. The lake house is very hot. In the corner, Angelique has positioned an oscillating fan, not one made from the magic of a 3-D printer, but one from Walmart, made in China by people Angelique believes in need of therapy.

Not the object, but the idea for an object, blueprints for an oscillating fan made from the magic of a 3-D printer. “It’s my idea,” she says at the board meeting. “Don’t steal it.”

I don’t go to board meetings, but my roommate does. She’s too young for board meetings, but she doesn’t care. Her name is Angelique. Everyone calls her Angel, and I have some idea why. They call me Turkey Lurkey, but my name is Lauren.

Angelique thinks I need to become more involved in the community. I think she needs to go jump in a lake. One thing she’s heavily involved in is community advocacy. She advocates for members of the community. One of the ways she does this is to turn her uncle’s lake house into a community center, a safe space, the sign says, for members of the LGBTQ community. Angelique herself has a steady boyfriend who lives in another state. They video chat.

“What are you wearing?” Angelique says into her laptop. They’re sharing a long-distant candlelight dinner—Subway sandwiches—at their respective desks.

“Can’t you see what I’m wearing?” her boyfriend replies from the screen.

“No, I mean, what pants are you wearing?”

“Oh,” he says. “Jeans.”

His name is Brett, and he acts like someone named Brett. He wears a lot of jeans.

Angelique and Brett are getting married as soon as he finishes his internship in another state. I’d tell you which state, but it’s too boring. I’d tell you what kind of internship, but you can probably guess: a really important internship. As our evil president might say, a very big deal.

But back to the oscillating fan made from the magic of a 3-D printer. These ideas are in development. Angelique is working on a prototype. She invented this notion, she says, because we live in Oklahoma, and Oklahoma is very hot. This is life-saving technology, she says. True innovation.

To continue reading “Paper Fan” click here.

Apr 25

May Deadlines: 12 Contests and Prizes Available This Month

As spring continues on its way, we’ve said goodbye to the crocuses, the snowbells, and the daffodils. And just like the flowers, these contests are also only here for a limited time. Make sure you check them out before they’re gone!

FEATURED Masters Review Flash Fiction Contest

Never before has each word in a submission been worth so much… You might be limited to 1000 words, but the winner will be rewarded with $3000! Second and third place receive $300 and $200, respectively, and all stories are considered for publication. We’re only looking for previously unpublished stories, but you’re allowed both simultaneous and multiple submissions. Our guest judge is Stuart Dybek, and we’re asking you to amaze him! Don’t miss it!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 30

Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize

If you have a poem to share, Ruminate wants to read it! Judged by the fantastic Matthew Olzmann, the first-place prize is $1500 and publication. The runner-up receives $300, and all entries are considered for publication. Each submission is only two poems, but there are no limits on the number of entries per person. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 1

The Loraine Williams Poetry Prize

Arthur Sze, the celebrated professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is judging this contest for The Georgia Review, and they are looking for a masterful poem! The final winner will receive $1500, publication, and a trip to Atlanta for a public reading, but all submitted poems will be considered for publication (at $4 a line). Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: May 1

Waterston Desert Writing Prize

Inspired by author and poet Ellen Waterston, this prize provides financial and other support to writers whose work reflects a connection to the desert. They’re looking for creative or literary nonfiction, with an engaging style, unique voice, and a fresh perspective. The Waterston Desert Prize recognizes one writer with $2500, a residency at Summer Lake, OR, and a reading and reception at the High Desert Museum in Bend, OR. Applicants need to provide a biographical statement, a proposal, and a writing sample. Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: May 1

Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize

This amazing prize is available through Duke University, and it’s based on the collaboration between photographer Dorothea Lange and writer Paul Taylor. They’re looking for extended and ongoing projects that rely on combining words and images, up to nineteen images and fifteen pages! Applications must include a project description, a statement, and a biography. The winner will receive $10,000, a feature story, and their work will be placed in the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University. More details here.

Entry Fee: $60 Deadline: May 15

Prophecy Creek Award for Speculative Fiction

If you write your fiction with a futuristic or supernatural bent, this is the contest you’ve been waiting for! Hidden River Press is looking for an original unpublished work of speculative fiction, and the winner will receive $1000 and publication. Make a note that submissions need to include a brief biography, outline, and full synopsis along with the full manuscript! Details here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 15

Raymond Carver Short Story Contest

If your stories are compelling, captivating, and concise, then Carve Magazine has the contest for you! Judged by Leesa Cross-Smith, the winner receives $2000, second-place receives $500, third-place is given $250, two Editor’s Choice recipients get $125, and all of the winning entries will be read by three literary agents. This is the twenty-first anniversary of the contest, so don’t waste any more time! Submit here.

Entry Fee: $17 Deadline: May 15

The Emerging Writer’s Contest

Ploughshares prides itself on their commitment to promoting the work of up-and-coming writers, and that means you! This contest is meant to celebrate emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, awarding $2000, publication, and agency review to the winners of each category. Kiley Reid is judging fiction, Paul Lisicky is judging nonfiction, and Paige Lewis is judging poetry. Guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $24 Deadline: May 15

New Letters Prizes

There are actually three contests here, one each for poetry, nonfiction, or fiction! The Conger Beasley Jr. Award for Nonfiction submissions may be up to 8000 words, and the best essay receives $2500 and publication. The Robert Day Award for Fiction may also be up to 8000 words, the Patricia Cleary Miller Award for Poetry up to six poems, and the winner of these contests also receives $2500 and publication. Make sure to select the correct contest for your submission! More details here.

Entry Fee: $24 Deadline: May 18

Elixir Press Fiction Award

This contest is sponsored by Elixir Press, and is open to all authors writing in English! They’re accepting both novels and short story collections, as long as the submissions are literary quality. Simultaneous submissions are welcome, and the winner receives $2000, publication, and 25 copies of their winning manuscript. Judged by Ann Harleman. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $40 Deadline: May 31

Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction

The University of Georgia Press has offered this award since 1983, and it has become an important showcase for talented emerging writers. Series editor Roxane Gay is looking for short story collections, which may include novellas and long stories, and the competition is open to all authors writing in English who reside in North America. The winner receives a cash award of $1000 as well as a standard book publishing contract with the University of Georgia Press. More information here.

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: May 31

Guy Owen Prize

Southern Poetry Review is looking for the perfect poem, and it could be yours! They’re accepting three to five poems in every submission, and the winning poem will receive $1000 and publication. Enter here!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 31

by Kimberly Guerin


Apr 23

Litmag Roadmap: Indiana

Next stop on our roadtrip: Indiana! Rebecca Williamson has rounded up the great Indiana literary journals for all of us to visit, support, and send our work to. Join us on our tour through the Hoosier state!

Indiana may be known for its car racing, but there’s more to the 19th state of the United States. There’s quite a large literary scene for writers in Indiana. From the Central Indiana Writers’ Association to the Writers Guild at Bloomington, a writer can probably find all the resources. The crossroads state is also home to many literary journals, such as the ones below!

Indiana Review

This bi-annual print journal began publishing at the Indiana University in 1976. Indiana Review accepts fiction, essays, poetry, and art from both emerging and established writers. The journal has had contributors’ work appear in several anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Anthology. Indiana Review has no specific aesthetic that writers need to adhere too; they only need to submit their best quality of work. Submissions are currently closed, but when they reopen on Submittable, there is a $3 fee.

Southern Indiana Review

Southern Indiana Review is another bi-annual journal publishing during the fall and spring. The journal is published through University of Southern Indiana. Writers across the country can submit fiction, interviews, nonfiction, poetry, and art. Although submissions just closed, they will reopen October 1 on Submittable for a fee of $4. In addition to the bi-annual publications, there are also contests and awards for all writers.

Inwood Indiana

Launched in 2010, this journal publishes all forms of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction with a focus on the unusual. If strange things happen or things go missing, Inwood Indiana wants to see it. Inwood Indiana is actually a very small town in the state, too. There are online and print versions, and submissions are accepted via mail or their online form.

Northwest Indiana Literary Journal

They encourage submissions from new and emerging minors with an emphasis on underrepresented or marginalized individuals. The journal searches for authenticity and directness, so send them your short stories, flash fiction, humor, art, photographs, and poem—but only one at a time. Northwest Indiana takes special notice of work featuring industrial themes. Submissions can be emailed to

Sycamore Review

Published out of Purdue University, Sycamore Review publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art.  While there is no overall aesthetics, each genre has some guidelines based on editor preferences; however, Sycamore Review maintains that any story could sway their minds. The first issue was published in 1989 and dedicated to graduate student Ann Griffith Lindsey who dreamed of a literary journal but sadly passed before she could see it. Submissions are closed on Submittable until September 1 when they open with a small fee of $3. There is also the Wabash Prizes in fiction and poetry to look out for. Book reviews and art can be queried.

Burningword Literary Journal

Publishing since 2000, this international journal releases four issues each year. They accept poetry, short fiction, short nonfiction, and photography. All submissions are evaluated in a double-blind review, meaning both the reader’s and writer’s identities are hidden. The next submission deadline is June 10 for their July 5 issue via Submittable.

The Indianapolis Review

The Indianapolis Review is a poetry, art, and visual poetry journal published quarterly online. They want to showcase any poetry or art from writers and artists around the world, though they hope to showcase regional creators. Currently, the journal is accepting submissions for a special issue, “Poets are Funny,” which is meant to showcase the poets who use humor in their writing since it’s not displayed as frequently. The deadline for this special issue is July 1 via email at

Apr 22

The Masters Review Volume IX Available on Amazon!

We are excited to share that The Masters Review Volume IX is now available for purchase on! Get to know the writers who were selected by Rick Bass and pick up your copy today!

“Exchanges” by Dara Kell

Dara Kell is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker. Her films have been broadcast on PBS, TVFrance, and Netflix, and screened at festivals worldwide. Dara has made films in Brazil, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and China, and is currently making a documentary about Reverend William Barber and civil disobedience in America. Her short story “Small Holding” won the Zoetrope All:Story Fiction Contest in 2015. Dara is a graduate of Rhodes University and lives in Brooklyn and Cape Town.

“The God in the Dark” by Leeyee Lim

Leeyee Lim is a Malaysian-Chinese writer who currently lives and writes in Toronto. Her fiction has previously been published or is forthcoming in Epiphany Magazine, The Drum Literary Magazine and Necessary Fiction. She taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“Pirating” by Jack Foraker

Jack Foraker is a writer from Yolo County, California.

“Proper Forage” by Barbara Litkowski

Barbara Litkowski holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Butler University. Her short story “Monarch Blue” won Arizona State University’s 2018 Climate Fiction Short Story Contest, was anthologized in Everything Change, Volume II, and reprinted in the international journal, IMPACT. Her short stories have also appeared in Subtle Fiction, Blue Lake Review and Luna Station Quarterly. She was selected as a finalist in the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and is a former recipient of the Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist Program grant.  She lives with her husband in Zionsville, Indiana.

“Where the Last Grizzly Was Murdered” by Charisse Hovey Kubr

Charisse Hovey Kubr published her first short story as a teenager, earned a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from California State University at Long Beach and worked as the Editor of Sun Newspapers in Seal Beach, California. Her freelance creative nonfiction has been published in magazines such as SeaThe Yacht, Destinations and the Orange Coast College Marine Science Journal. In addition to teaching English Language Arts in public schools, she has taught Creative Nonfiction at Idyllwild Arts Academy, Outdoor Education in Big Bear and once worked as a horseback Interpretive Naturalist in Kings Canyon National Park. Currently she teaches English courses while writing short stories and screenplays in Redondo Beach, California where she lives with her husband and two children.

“Above Snowline” by Rachel Markels Webber

Rachel Markels Webber spent much of her childhood in Seattle, Washington and Boulder, Colorado. The daughter of mountain climbers, she spent many weekends hiking with her parents. Rachel currently lives in Massachusetts where she trains Dressage Horses and their riders. “Above Snowline” is her second published short story, her first, “Missing,” appeared in the Charles River Review.

“Mortal Champions” by Stefani Nellen

Stefani Nellen is a German psychologist with an MFA in Creative Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her stories appear in Guernica, AGNI, Glimmer Train, Third Coast, the Bellevue Literary Review, PRISM International, and Cutbank, among others. She is also a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop. Her real home is currently in the Netherlands with her family; her online home is at

“Everyday Horror Show” by Paola Ferrante

Paola Ferrante’s debut poetry collection, What to Wear When Surviving A Lion Attack, was shortlisted for the 2020 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She was longlisted for the 2020 Journey Prize and won The New Quarterly‘s 2019 Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award, Grain‘s 2020 prize for Poetry and Room‘s 2018 prize for Fiction. She was also an Honorable Mention for The North American Review‘s 2020 Kurt Vonnegut prize. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in PRISM International, CV2, The Journey Prize Stories 32, and elsewhere. She is the Poetry Editor at Minola Review and resides in Toronto, Canada.

“Cicada Summer” by Emma Eun-joo Choi

Emma Eun-joo Choi is a playwright and fiction writer from Vienna, Virginia. Her fiction has been featured in publications including Passages North, Jelly Bucket Magazine, and The Harvard Advocate, and her plays have been professionally produced in DC and New York City. Emma is a current student at Harvard College studying English, where she also performs comedy.

“Whitney in the Real World” by Stephanie Pushaw

Stephanie Pushaw is a writer and editor from Los Angeles. She was a Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where she received an MFA in Fiction. Her short stories appear in Narrative, Sundog Lit, and Joyland, and her essays in Mississippi Review, DIAGRAM, and Los Angeles Review of Books. Stephanie has also doctored screenplays, edited interviews for The Believer, and lived in eight cities on three continents (so far). She is currently a PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Houston.


Apr 20

Reading Through the Awards: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, recent winner of The Story Prize, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb):The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.”

There is power in the secrets we keep, the stories we choose to tell, and the people we hold close, however many or few there may be. These are the throughlines in Deesha Philyaw’s debut collection of short stories, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. These stories are as intimate as they are powerful, and there’s a nuance to the truths they tell. In “Jael,” a great-grandmother uncovers secrets in Jael’s diary that get “worser and worser” the more she reads—and yet, she steps back and allows Jael to make her own complicated decisions. Each woman lives with their own version of the truth and ultimately is changed by it, a narrative that is echoed in “Peach Cobbler.” Philyaw’s language melds food and body in a way that feels visceral; as Pastor Neely eats Olivia’s mother’s peach cobbler, his lips are “parted and glistening,” and the spoon “practically disappeared in his bear paw of a hand.” He is an animal, consuming this extension of Olivia’s mother’s self, which complicates the narrative’s turn when Olivia makes her own peach cobbler as an act of defiance and her own pursuit of power. Philyaw deftly guides her readers through this twist because of her ability to craft characters that feel authentically complicated, with more below the surface than the reader can plainly see—but we feel those layers through the characters’ actions, like Lyra’s thought processes in “How to Make Love to a Physicist” as she uses lessons from therapy to process her feelings toward a love interest, even as she pushes him away.

Philyaw’s stories are alternately joyful and sorrowful, sprinkled with a sense of levity that comes from earnest self-awareness. In “Dear Sister,” the main character writes to a sister she didn’t know she had, sharing news that their father died. She writes, “It’s all about who you are and what you’ve been through and what, if anything, it means to you to share a father with my sisters Renee, Kimba, Tasheta, and me.” She doesn’t compel her to join their family, nor does she tell her to stay away—she simply tells her truth, lays her heart on the table, and lets her sister make the next step. So, too, does Philyaw, letting us into the worlds of these women and their secrets and their fears. We are not given helping hands because life did not give her characters helping hands, either. As the narrator of “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” says, “All the risk is yours, but I’ll wade out into it with you. I’ve always enjoyed playing in the deep end.”

Rebecca Paredes

For the women of Secret Lives of Church Ladies, the church’s influence dominates their lives, whether or not they consider themselves devout. Their bodies, sexualities, the roles they’re meant to play in the family and community as women—all of it has been defined by the church and further instilled by the maternal figures in their lives. Even if the men are allowed their every whim, like the absent father in “Dear Sister” or the philandering pastor in “Peach Cobbler,” the women are expected to uphold their virtue and negate their own desires to put everyone else first.

But Deesha Philyaw is not interested in glorifying the struggles of Black women or ennobling them into martyrs. Instead, each woman, in her own way, in her own time, pushes back to acknowledge her own desire. How she wants to claim it, what she’ll give up in exchange for it, is a purely personal choice. In “Eula,” Caroletta is in love with her best friend, and despite knowing Eula may never reciprocate, appeases herself with the little she’s given without giving up hope. In contrast, in “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands,” the mistress lays out her terms for entanglement in strict, sometimes sardonic, detail. She won’t waste time on men who don’t follow her expectations, and neither she nor Carlotta are deemed any less worthwhile for choosing what the other did not.

And if the woman, like the mistress, voices her fears and desires aloud, it doesn’t automatically condemn her. In “Snowfall” and “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” each woman’s choices has repercussions, as all actions do, but there’s a catharsis she gains from speaking out, as well as an opportunity for her loved ones to grow closer.

June Sham

Deesha Philyaw’s collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, opens up with a quote from Ansel Elkins poem, “Autobiography of Eve.” “Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” Philyaw takes us through nine stories about the lives of different Black woman, where she explores the same themes of the self, desire, and God. The problem that arises is that Philyaw uses the same tone in each story to present those themes, making each main character sound like different versions of the same person. I’d like to say the tone in each story is different enough to have successfully created its own distinct and original voice, but I can’t. Creating one story with an original voice is already difficult enough, but to create multiple stories with distinct and original voices is a huge challenge. We’re given nine stories that blend into one big story about similarly written main characters, like one big painting divided into nine squares, brushed with shades of the same color.

It isn’t the characters or the themes that are the issue, but the overarching sameness in tone that blends them all together, making each main character’s story lose its distinctness and remembrance in the mind of the reader once finished. The ideas of God and grace for example could have easily been worked on to separate each stories tone, introducing a new language and style for each main character in respect to those themes. As a reader, I so desperately tried to find some major distinction in voice. I looked for tone. I looked for a difference in the ideas of God presented to me because that’s what I expected when I read Elkin’s quote. I’m still looking for them.

Casandra Lopez

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, provides raw and poignantly told narratives of Black women whose lives are fraught with wanting more than what their church-going days gave them. While the nine stories in Philyaw’s collection never cross over one another or culminate into a grand finale, each manages to explore themes of sexuality, family, Christianity, motherhood, love, and marriage—in varied, but consistently complicated ways. For example, the third story “Dear Sister” is an epistolary. Through the process of having the main character write a letter to her unknown sister and catching her up on what their father was like, Philyaw comments on the many effects a not-so-present father can have on a family. The eighth story, “How to Make Love to a Physicist,” is a Q and A. Through the process of having the main character repeat the same question while answering the same question in a linear chronological fashion, Philyaw suggests how certain questions not only elucidate our desires, but also introduce and return us to certain people.

In both “Dear Sister” and “Peach Cobbler,” the layered quality to Philyaw’s storytelling shines. In the former, there’s an interesting effect the epistolary form has on the story. Because the main character actively addresses the unknown sister and shares the remarks the other sisters have on the letter actually being written (even as they’re all bickering), there’s an added honesty to the story. Not that the epistolary form itself is any truer than other forms. Rather, the consistent awareness lends itself to the feeling that the main character is genuinely trying to welcome the unknown sister, especially as we begin to see how flawed yet upfront the main character is to others and how the act of writing the letter itself appears to act as a reconciliation process for her. In “Peach Cobbler,” the layered quality to Philyaw’s writing shows in her imagery and dynamic scene work. Without spoiling too much, the main character describes and interacts with her mother’s peach cobbler in many different ways. This allows Philyaw to twist and turn scene–images that had been well-grounded into the story have suddenly distorted under interpersonal conflict. All-in-all, while I might have wanted to see beyond some the collection’s abrupt endings, the ways Deesha Philyaw weaves the inner and exterior worlds of Black women struggling to feel wanted brings me back to the poignant snippets she did end up crafting for us to see.

Angelica Colot

The language of the first narrator (Caroletta) feels mechanical. While the intrigue of church women having affairs with each other is sustained, there is something almost jaded and tailor-made within the writing itself. The text feels like it was written to satisfy a prompt concerning women of color who also happen to be part of the LGBT community—which is odd, because “Snowfall” does not have this issue. However, once the first short story is complete, the following narrators in the remaining sections are much more sincere and naturally written. The emotional and sexual need for human connection become visceral and honest in the “Not-Daniel”, “Peach Cobbler”, “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands”, and “When Eddie Levert Comes” sections.

The discontent and constant disappointment felt by a majority of women in these stories touches at the heart of the question they are collectively asking, “How can I be fulfilled with/without a man?” Some of the stories answer this by highlighting familial, personal, and more long-term connections with others (“Dear Sister”, “Snowfall”, “How to Make Love to a Physicist”, “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands”, “When Eddie Levert Comes”), whereas some stories don’t (“Eula”, “Not-Daniel”, “Peach Cobbler”, “Jael”). This collection offers itself as a reflection of the varied circumstances and shared experiences within a community. Some people find happiness and fulfillment in real life while the rest of the populace either moves on quietly or suffers. These stories remind us that there is nothing definitive in life, and death is too uncertain to provide much comfort. The often dastardly secrets between these women and the people they connect with are the glue that either keep them content, happy, or downright miserable. Overall, it’s an excellent assortment of gut-wrenching and pleasurable affairs. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is well worth a second and even a third read.

S. N. Valadez

Curated by Brandon Williams


Apr 19

New Voices: “Inheritance” by Mary Mandeville

“The word breath comes from Old English, bræth, meaning scent or smell,” Mary Mandeville tells us in “Inheritance.” We are proud to share Mandeville’s meditations on breathing and the precious gift of life it implies in this week’s entry to our New Voices catalog. Read on.

I count my mother-self lucky, in a way. For some, death by asphyxiation is no kind of choice.

I crave breath. Not just the ordinary in and out, chest rising and falling, inspiration and exhalation. I long to huff and puff, to pant, to strain. Collarbones rising, ribs expanding, diaphragm tenting, lungs gasping. I want this hard breathing enough to chase it every day—running, hiking, jumping, pedaling. Calf and thigh muscles contracting and pushing until my breath comes hard and ragged.

In yoga classes before COVID, I sat, buttocks on a block, knees bent and feet behind me. “Close your eyes and bring your mind to your breath,” the instructor said quietly. “If your breath is shallow, let it be shallow, if your breath is deep let it be deep.” We sat like this for a minute or more before she encouraged us to fill every centimeter of our lungs with air on the inhale, then to squeeze every last drop of oxygen out on the exhale. Now I repeat this exercise alone. I see my breath as a sunshine yellow light moving in and down, up and out.

I’m willing to work hard for breath, to know I’m alive.

To continue reading “Inheritance” click here.


Apr 12

New Voices: “Rip Your Throat Out” by Will Ejzak

When the zombies came, humans adapted. They erected fences. They stationed snipers on the roofs of schools. They believed Ground Zero was safe during the daylight. In Will Ejzak’s “Rip Your Throat Out,” our narrator Rip wants you to know, in a voice all his own, this isn’t true. Today’s New Voices story is full of heart, humor, and humans who think they’re safe. Read on at your own risk:

They talk about winning in school. Ms. Fincher say, We flattening the curve. Mr. Zimbler say, One of you kids will grow up to kill the last zombie bastard. Principal Hart say, Must prepare the children for post-zombie adulthood. But humans always brag. Assumed it was lies.

I is zombie. Ma is zombie. Frank is zombie. We live in old Roberson house. We ate Robersons. Screamed and screamed. Shouldn’t eat baby first. Made Mr. and Mrs. Roberson loud. Screechy. Mental note for next time: Baby is dessert.

I sleep in dog bed. Robersons had big spotty Great Dane. Ate him. Sleep in his bed now. Fetal position. Frank trip over me sometimes. On purpose? Not Frank fan.

Frank met Ma at maternity ward. Ate babies together. Fell in love. Now stuck with Frank. Frank not real dad. Real dad somewhere out there? Mental note: Find real dad. Imagine: Real dad come back. Fight Frank. Rip head off. Put on chain link fence outside Roberson house. Warning: Ma off limits. Future Franks Keep Out!

Still too many humans, say Frank. Sometimes Frank go out for midnight snack. Get back into bed with bloody teeth. Gross, say Ma. If hunting, bring back for family, say Ma. Selfish. Frank get mad. Bite off Ma hand. Now Ma have one less hand.

Don’t hurt but annoying, say Ma. Easier to do things with two.

I kill Frank, I say.

Already dead, say Ma. Plus Frank bigger. Bite off your hand too maybe.

Will trade one less hand for one less Frank, I say.

He not all bad, say Ma.

But Frank not just zombie. Frank jerk zombie. Double bad. Bad squared.

To continue reading “Rip Your Throat Out” click here.

Apr 6

April Book Review: Girl A by Abigail Dean

In our first book review of April, reviewer Dan Mazzacane explores Abigail Dean’s Girl A, published in February of this year by Viking. Mazzacane writes, “[F]or all its darkness, there is tenderness, small moments of happiness between Lex and her adoptive father are welcome spots of light in these pages.” Read the full review below.

By the time Girl A, Abigail Dean’s debut novel, begins, the crime motivating its plot has already been solved. Alexandria Gracie has escaped her parents, who have been shot dead after keeping Lex and her siblings in abusive captivity. But Girl A is not a book about the act that triggered trauma, it is a study of the aftermath, carried out with a meticulous eye for the needs of its survivors. Our narrator, Lex, has no time for an audience’s emotions in the relation of her story. Her delivery of memories concerning the abuse is deliberately flat, often unsettling for its frankness, and utterly heartbreaking. For Lex, the relation of traumatic acts is simply reality.

Read more.