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Urgent, Unheard Stories / Book Review

Roxane Gay's Urgent, Unheard Stories is a pocket-size love letter to books and authors past, present, and aspiring. At only 64 pages in length, Urgent is printed as a petite hard back with a brown, paper bag-esque cover design and font selection that makes it feel a little "top secret".

This quick-glance impression got me before I realized the book was written by Gay. In this way, I feel the cover doesn’t do this tiny gem justice. As a new, obsessive fan of Gay’s writing, I shouldn’t have been surprised that she wrote it. If anything, I should have already known. Still, I’m happy to have it now.

Unfortunately, Urgent, Unheard Stories only takes an hour or two to finish, but for anyone who has wondered how a writer’s mind works, these seven essays read like an intimate coffee-and-chat with one of today’s most notable. Gay dishes on the books that have shaped her, and those that have most commanded her attention.

“In all these books and in so many more, I find the most essential parts of myself. I become more myself. I learn what to hold most necessary when using my voice. I learn and continue to learn how to use my voice,” she says.

She interviews fellow authors and peppers recommended books throughout, touching on a range of titles that embrace (and sometimes repel) feminism and various forms of sexual desire, including the less savory. In The Ten Best Books About Modern Virgins, she lists books that are complex and psychological, including The Virgin Suicides, Forever… by Judy Blume, Invisible Life and more. Gay’s own fiction novels lean to the dark side of happily-ever-after, so her literary taste isn’t much of a surprise.

Still, a recommended reads list that focuses on the loss of innocence is curious. Gay inadvertently summarizes her selections in her synopsis of Virgins, "...it primarily reveals how, even at a young age, our choices have consequences for which we may not be prepared, and how all too often, virginity is hardly about the woman to whom it belongs. Virginity is, unfortunately, what people make of it."

The following essays bounce from highlighting writers that have seeded themselves away from the New York hub, to an interview with writer Alissa Nutting about her fiction novel, Tampa, a disturbing story about a female pedophile, and onto a conversation with writer Kiese Laymon about blackness and Afro Futurism.

For writers, Gay knows we’re her main audience; she gives a pep-talk at the start when she candidly admits that she almost gave up on publishing her debut novel, An Untamed State, and directs much of the first and last essays to us. She advises us as she would a younger version of herself, “Don't worry about what to call yourself as a writer. Don't worry about what people will call you. Write urgent, unheard stories. Read urgent, unheard stories.”

Urgent, Unheard Stories may look like a ‘happy’ gift you would pick up at a checkout, but so much more is packed into it that passing it by as such is a huge disservice to what it is. Clearly, Gay has pursued a life-long passion for reading and crafting good stories, and she’s generous about sharing her passion in depth. I wish it was a bigger book, but there’s so much here to love. Find it at Parnassus Books, or your local bookstore.

By Megan Wolfe

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