Grammy-nominated singer and actor turns to Afrocentric sci-fi
Janelle Monáe’s writing in The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories From Dirty Computer is less sex-centric than her music, but still joyously queer.
It’s no spoiler to explain that “dirty computers” are us. In Monáe’s dystopia, the governing New Dawn considers us all “computers” and anyone out of sync with its monolithic conformity is a “dirty computer.” After she became famous for her music in the early 2010s, Monáe became an actor—appearing in 2016’s Moonlight and Hidden Figures. But, mostly, she is a singer-songwriter with multiple Grammy nominations including a nomination for “Album of the Year” in 2018 for Dirty Computer in which she established the world that her new Afro-futurist collection explores.
Dirty Computer, the short narrative film, features Monáe as Jane 57821, a pansexual leader in a dystopian future. Based on the album, the self-styled “emotion picture” earned Monáe a Hugo Award nomination. Its central concept, developed in the book is that all dissenting identities (“dirty computers”) must have their memories wiped clean. There are labs set up to do this, but also roving New Dawn drones and agents who also use varieties of the Nevermind, memory-erasing gas.
The Memory Librarian is a series of five stories of individuals and communities resisting—often culturally or artistically—the New Dawn. The characters are predominantly queer people of color, often in economically or politically vulnerable communities, who oppose this homophobic and socially oppressive regime that maintains its power through drones, and surveillance even of dreams.
On the accurate assumption that I would easily be able to experience Monáe’s work after finishing the book, I read the book before seeing the film, listening through her music or watching her acting (except for Hidden Figures which I saw in theaters when it came out). In that way, I would be able to talk about The Memory Librarian in an unbiased way but later be able to talk about her work in a knowledgeable way.
While there’s something not quite fully-baked about the stories, they are stylistically interesting, thematically compelling and narratively absorbing. The collection’s stylistic verve and emphasis on the need for agency in creative completion makes it easy to justify as intentional a reading experience that demands work from the reader.
Monáe wrote each of these stories in collaboration with a different colleague and they are quite different while all portraying characters in New Dawn worlds. Just as she worked with Chuck Lightning for the film and both Prince and Nate Wonder for the album, she worked with Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, and Sheree Renée Thomas on the stories. She largely pares down the sensuality of the music and videos, but there’s just as much queer positivity.
The stories are a little uneven–“Timebox”, which Monáe co-wrote with Ewing, doesn’t have the heft of the others, and the final story “Timebox Alter(ed)” with Thomas is a little childish in topic, tone and achievement–it just misses the fairytale affirmation of optimism that it intends. But “Nevermind” with Lore recapitulates both the song “Pynk” and the emotion picture with verve, and “Save Changes” written with Delgado has a similar energy and is a lot of fun even before taking into account its hearteningly vibrant, resistant, vibrantly queer portrayal of my West Harlem neighborhood.
It’s hard not to be impressed with Monáe who has now succeeded at music on its own terms, movie acting on its own terms, sci-fi movie-making on its own terms and Afro-Futurist writing on its own terms. A dozen years after her first album, I’m a fan.