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Janelle Monáe’s first book expands the world of her music

Janelle Monáe performs at the Anthem in Washington, D.C., in 2018. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
5 min

A previous version of this article incorrectly said the short film accompanying “Dirty Computer” won a Hugo Award. It was nominated for a Hugo Award. This version has been corrected.

The desire to take a music project beyond the confines of an album has driven the career direction of so many creatively ambitious musicians. The music-to-film pipeline, which includes classic studio films, such as The Who’s “Tommy” (1975) or Prince’s “Purple Rain” (1984), and extended music video projects, such as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” in 2016, can establish an artist’s auteur status — when done successfully.

American singer, rapper and actress Janelle Monáe, who made her film debut in 2016, with the award-winning “Moonlight” and critically acclaimed “Hidden Figures,” is no stranger to this concept. Her Grammy-nominated third album, the joyously vibrant collection of pop bangers “Dirty Computer,” was accompanied by an “emotion picture.” The Hugo Award-nominated short film brought to life the fully formed world around Monáe’s record, introducing audiences to a dystopian near-future surveillance state where queer people, people of color and all who don’t conform are considered “dirty computers” and hunted down to be corrected. It is this world that Monáe builds on in her first book, “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer,” a collection of short stories that explore the power of memory in liberation.

The collection is a collaboration between Monáe and several writers known for their work in speculative fiction and science fiction, including Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore and Sheree Renée Thomas. By nature, anthology collections, with the ink of so many different pens on them, can feel incohesive and messy. It is a credit to the editors and Monáe’s strong vision that the collection does not fall at that first hurdle. If anything, the varied voices play into the book’s concept, dipping in and out of different characters and worldviews to paint a larger picture of the effect of the all-seeing authoritarian state, New Dawn.

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In the era of New Dawn, difference is a crime. Technology is weaponized to watch a citizen’s every move, and memory is treated as a threat to the new order and wiped clean with the drug Nevermind. The allegories to our modern-day fears of technology’s dominance in our lives and the many ways history is rewritten to benefit those in power are evident throughout the text. As with the album “Dirty Computer,” which Monáe told Rolling Stone was for young, marginalized people, “The Memory Librarian” is fixated on that same audience — a reminder for those who have ever been told they don’t fit in that there’s a world beyond this harsh one and a set of tools that can help them get there.

In the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” which Monáe co-wrote with Johnson, we are introduced to Seshet, the director librarian of a city called Little Delta and a rare Black face in the upper echelons of New Dawn who presides over its authoritarian regime by day, cracking down on Doc Young and his illegal street remixes of Nevermind. At night, she seeks out the thrill of life beyond the rules and, after meeting her transgender girlfriend, Alethia 56934, at a dive bar, Seshet begins to uncover more of her past before she became the “queen of the white city.”

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Even those who have escaped the regimented world of New Dawn remain haunted by the horrors they witnessed, as evidenced in the story “Nevermind,” co-written with Lore, which follows the rebellious Jane 57821, who broke free from the regime when she chose to remember. Now hiding out in the Pynk Hotel, an all-female commune in the desert, Jane battles against being taken over by memories of her old life and the threat of being found by New Dawn. The women convene in groups called “chords” and are portrayed as radical, freethinking artists, just like many of the other protagonists throughout the anthology. In this world, artists, musicians, painters and designers are the physical embodiments of freedom and conversely are treated with suspicion by the regime.

The elasticity of time is a common theme throughout the collection, as “Timebox” (co-written by Ewing) considers how unlimited time could aid women of color who are so often the most overworked and under-resourced. Elsewhere, “Save Changes” (co-written by Delgado) considers the well-trodden time travel storyline in which Amber, whose late father gave her a stone that can turn back time, weighs the potential collateral damage of meddling.

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The Afrofuturist collection feeds both Monáe’s fan base, which will be hungry to delve deeper into her work, and sci-fi fans looking for another book in the burgeoning Black speculative fiction genre. One point to note is that some stories are given more focus than others. Just as you’re getting into “Timebox” or “Save Changes,” the section ends abruptly. Although another 100 pages would not have been possible, I would have enjoyed delving deeper into the premise, the lives and the dreams of our main characters. If anything, because showing the many ways that dreaming equals liberation for marginalized people is a key takeaway from the anthology. Dreaming helps characters find themselves and envision new ways of being, so they can proudly declare, as Monáe sings in her song “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “I am not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream.”

Stephanie Phillips is a London-based music journalist and musician, and the author of “Why Solange Matters.”

The Memory Librarian

And Other Stories of Dirty Computer

By Janelle Monáe

Harper Voyager. 336 pp. $28.99

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