A Year in Reading: Deesha Philyaw

December 1, 2022 | 15 books mentioned 5 min read

I read my way through what has been a year full of big changes. My older daughter graduated college and my younger daughter graduated high school, freeing me to leave Pittsburgh (my home for the last 25 years) for good. Where would I live next? I still haven’t answered that question in terms of a permanent home, but my first stop is here in Oxford, Mississippi, where I’m the John and Reneé Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. From audiobooks I listened to while packing up and then driving to The Sip, to craft books I read in preparation to teach an advanced fiction MFA workshop, below is a partial list of what I read this year. Some of these books are already out in the world; others, I was lucky enough to get an advance reader copy.

stories from tenants downstairs cover Deesha Philyawwhen trying to return home cover Deesha Philyawin other lifetimes all i've lost comes back to me cover Deesha Philyawif i survive you cover Deesha Philyawtemple folk cover Deesha Philyaw


Short stories are home for me, and I read a slew of fantastic debuts this year. Among them, Sidik Fofana’s Stories from the Tenants Downstairs captivated me with its powerful prose, unforgettable voices, and commentary on gentrification. Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s stellar stories in When Trying to Return Home are literally breathtaking. My West Virginia University Press-mate Courtney Sender’s In Other Lifetimes All I’ve Lost Comes Back to Me is a stunner from the very first page. With the connected stories in If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery delivers dazzling, unparalleled storytelling. And I absolutely loved Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal, stories of Black Muslims grappling with family, religion, culture, and desire.


olga dies dreaming cover Deesha Philyawsweet, soft plenty rhythm cover Deesha Philyawmoonrise over jessup cover Deesha Philyawgone like yesterday cover Deesha Philyawhouse of cotton cover Deesha Philyawsun is sky cover Deesha PhilyawI read a plethora of smart, sexy, provocative novels this year, including Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez, Sweet Soft Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell, Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks, Gone Like Yesterday by Janelle M. Williams, House of Cotton by Monica Brashear, and Sun is Sky by Jedah Mayberry. These authors all take risks, in the style and substance of their work, in order to tell compelling, highly original stories.

family lore cover Deesha PhilyawFamily Lore is one of two books by Elizabeth Acevedo that I had the great pleasure of reading this year. This novel is a sprawling intergenerational saga full of magic and delicious prose. The voices of the Marte sisters and their daughters will make you laugh and break your heart. Some books I devour immediately because they’re so good; this one, I savored slowly because it is so intricate and beautiful.


The poet X cover Deesha PhilyawThe other book I read by Elizabeth was actually a re-read of her YA novel The Poet X, which delves into first love, family dynamics, and religion. This time, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Elizabeth, and it was pure fire, a whole new experience of a book that’s overflowing with tenderness and truth.

the street cover Deesha PhilyawAnn Petry’s classic novel, The Street, was another audiobook that was actually a re-read for me this year. I revisited it as I prepared to judge this year’s Ann Petry Prize for Red Hen Press. The Street tells the haunting, heartbreaking story of a Black single mother trying to survive racism, violence, and poverty in 1940s Harlem. I drove through four states in one day mesmerized by actor Danielle Deadwyler’s superb narration. (Deadwyler also portrays Mamie Till-Bradley, mother of Emmett Till, in the movie Till, and co-stars in the Netflix miniseries From Scratch.)

covercoveri'm glad my mom died cover Deesha Philyawshe memes well cover Deesha PhilyawBitten by the audiobook bug, I now listen to books whenever I drive. Celebrity memoirs topped my playlist this year. I’ve been a fan for decades, but after listening to The Meaning of Mariah Carey, I fell deeper in love with the singer, who narrates the book (and sings parts of it!). I didn’t know just how much she’d survived. Carey lays it bare, and I was in awe of her vulnerability. Same with Viola Davis and her memoir Finding Me. My god, the people and situations she overcame! Hearing her story in her voice is overwhelming, in a good way. Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died is another poignant, well-written survivor’s tale. Quinta Brunson’s She Memes Well, also read by the actor, brings some levity, but her Philly-to-Hollywood story is no less moving.

Dyscalculia coverI adored poet Camonghne Felix’s incredible memoir Dyscalculia, a story of love, loss, healing, and mental health. I read it in print, but I hope it’s eventually available as an audiobook.


roadmap coverAll prose and no poetry makes me a very meh reader, so I treated myself to some verses this year, including Monica Prince’s brilliant choreopoem Roadmap. A choreopoem is a dramatic form that combines poetry, dance, music, and song. Prince honors the spirit and legacy of this form which was created in 1975 by literary ancestor Ntozake Shange with her seminal work, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Like for colored girls…, Roadmap is radical and redemptive.

come kingdom coverroundabout trace coverCome Kingdom, a must-read collection by my University of Mississippi colleague Derrick Harriell, took me along a Black man’s journey of discovery, becoming, and longing. These poems are cleverly crafted, lyrical, vulnerable, intimate, and raw. I’m giving this book to several men in my life as a holiday gift this year. It’s truly a treasure. I also enjoyed poetry collections by two former Pittsburgh neighbors. Kristofer Collins’s Roundabout Trace is moody, bluesy, and terrific. Tuhin Das is a Bangladeshi writer living in exile at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. His passionate collection, Exile Poems, manages to be both global and personal in scope.


craft in the real world coverrefuse to be done coverMy copy of Matthew Salesses’s Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping is heavily dog-eared. It’s an essential guide for doing exactly what the subtitle says. The principles and practical exercises in Craft have been indispensable to me in the workshop I’m currently teaching, as well as in the process of writing my first novel. For my novel, I’m also leaning heavily on Matt Bell’s excellent craft book Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts.

the mamas coverThe Mamas by Helena Andrews focuses on the early childhood stage of parenting which I’m well beyond, but Helena writes so many timeless truths about motherhood, race, social media, and class in this sharp, hilarious book. It’s part-memoir, part-edgy commentary, and I’m 100% here for it.

his name is George Floyd coverThe book that devastated me this year? His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnip. In their exhaustive research and reporting, the authors spoke to hundreds of people, including Floyd’s second grade teacher, his barber, his family––people who knew and loved him. The book also interrogates the social, political, economic, and historical contexts for Floyd’s life and death.


coverI couldn’t stop talking to my old adult friends about this extraordinary YA novel, Confessions of an Alleged Good Girl by Joya Goffney. Inspired by the author’s real-life experiences, the book features a main character with vaginismus, a medical condition that makes it impossible for her to have sexual intercourse. Did I mention that the main character is a 17-year-old Baptist preacher’s daughter in a small town in Texas? This book is the definition of a page turner. Engrossing, funny, and well-crafted.


The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories coverJollof Rice and Other Revolutions coverconstructing a nervous system coverchaingang all stars coverMy to-be-read stack is ridiculously tall. Most immediately though, I’ll finish these books by year’s end: The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai, a short story collection; Jollof Rice and Other Revolutions by Omolola Ijeoma Ogunyemi, a novel in interlocking stories; Margo Jefferson’s memoir, Constructing a Nervous System; and Chain-Gang All-Stars, a novel by one of my favorite writers, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

More from A Year in Reading 2022

A Year in Reading Archives: 2021, 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

's debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church, and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Deesha is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and the 2022-2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.