Janelle Monáe is a singer, songwriter, actress, producer, eight-time Grammy nominee, and a household name — and they’re from the future. In the decade and more that Monáe has been performing and making music, they have already made major waves in Afrofuturism. Throughout her career, Monáe has used science fiction to express societal and personal battles of gender identity, racial identity, political violence, sexuality, memory, and culture. radical love.
Today, Monáe continues to explore science fiction and radical justice in her first book, “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer.” The book is a collection of short fiction written by Monáe, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas.
“The Memory Librarian” marks Monáe’s first foray into literature, but includes the same powerful themes of radical self-acceptance in oppressive societies seen in many of their previous works. Monáe has used allegories of androids to discuss discrimination against black and queer love since their first solo work in 2007, “Metropolis”. “Metropolis” and their next three albums form the Metropolis concept album suite, which follows Monáe’s android alter ego, Cindi Mayweather. Their 2018 album and accompanying “emotional image” “Dirty Computer” follows Monáe as another android, Jane 57821.
“The Memory Librarian” is inspired by the world created in “Dirty Computer”, where a totalitarian regime threatens to erase the memory of anyone it deems “dirty”. This time, with a team of writers, Monáe guides us again to imagine our own future of love and self-acceptance in “The Memory Librarian”.
Monáe took the time to speak to the South Seattle Emerald about “The Memory Librarian,” their journey through literature, Afrofuturism and more.
SSE: You’ve been making music that deals with Afrofuturism and android and “dirty computer” metaphors for almost 15 years now. How has this vision evolved over time, especially given the political and social changes over the years?
JM: Well, I’m from the future. I’ve always felt this, but I understand it in a fuller way now. So one thing I will say is that over time, through these albums and now this book, I’m bringing more of the future with me. I bring back more of my future, a freer me and mix that into the art I make. These “changes” are not new. Censorship is back. Gender discrimination and queerphobia are back. He looks and sounds a little different, so we find new ways, different ways, to be loud against him and most importantly to be seen. I want my communities to be seen, and that also takes internal work and growth.
Your albums have always been concept albums with well-developed and innovative storylines, with “The Memory Librarian” a continuation of that world. What made you want to get into literature and how was this transition?
I develop my director’s gaze. I made my last video, for “Turntables”. So, honestly, the movies and the scripts had a bigger influence on my view of “The Memory Librarian.” These are ideas, of course, but I had to see them — I need to see things, in my head. The films and the visuals therefore helped me to conceptualise. But when it comes to literature, I’ve always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I read a lot and wrote my own stories when I was a child. Sometimes things within you take a long time to find their moment. The way the pandemic has slowed us down – well, it slowed me down – it gave me the opportunity to really sit down with some of the story ideas that I’m sure are seeded in my curiosities from my past life. Speaking with all of the contributing writers, they all said they had never done, or even heard of, a project like this. So I knew we were doing something special, not just thematically but, you know, how we even do literature. It’s something new.
“Dirty Computer” created an illustrative world when it was released. What inspired you to pursue the world in writing and do it as a collaborative effort?
Storytelling in writing gives you a chance to really put something on paper and let it develop. It was the call. For example, in the book, in the “Nevermind” story that I created with Danny Lore, we come back to the Pynk hotel from the emotion photo and the “Pynk” video and get to really think what would be the realistic challenges and conflicts in a place that aspires to be aligned with women, to support them. We don’t have time to do that in a short film that has to cover an entire album, but in this book, we gave ourselves the time. And each of the employees, they all have strengths. If you’re starting a band, you want people with a particular talent with different parts of playing or recording music. This is how the book works. It’s a small symphony of non-binary, female-identifying black and brown designers.
While black writers have created amazing works in science fiction and Afrofuturism, science fiction is still dominated by white voices and a white-centric image. How do you hope “The Memory Librarian” will inspire BIPOC readers and writers?
Again, I’m from the future. There are black people in the future. We are not the first to say it, but we affirm it with these stories. And there are queer black people and non-binary black people and pansexual people. …there is a beautiful dark specter in the future, like there is right now, even though some people are trying to erase it. I hope the book keeps that vision, that reality, alive for people who are actively being erased right now.
How has the process of writing and collaborating for “The Memory Librarian” changed you? How has this changed your way of imagining, and in particular imagining the future of black people?
It helped me realize that living too much in the future has harmful consequences. Be future… in the present. That’s what I’m learning, and all the collaborators have helped me so much to have that thought and life on the page. I am so grateful to them.
Amanda Ong is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is a master’s candidate in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Washington.