‘The Memory Librarian’ by Janelle Monáe book review

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An earlier version of this article erroneously said that the short film accompanying “Dirty Computer” won a Hugo Award. It was nominated for a Hugo Award. This version has been fixed.

The desire to take a music project beyond the boundaries 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 expanded 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 joyfully pulsating collection of pop bangers’ “Dirty Computer”, was accompanied by an “emotional image”. The Hugo Award-nominated short film brought the fully-fledged world to life around Monáe’s record, introducing audiences to a dystopian near-future surveillance state where queer people, coloreds, and anyone who does not 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 authors 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 from so many different pens on, can feel incoherent and cluttered. It is an honor to the editors and Monáe’s strong vision that the collection does not fall at the first hurdle. If anything, the varied voices play into the book’s concept and dive in and out of different characters and worldviews to paint a larger picture of the effect of the all-seeing authoritarian state, New Dawn.

Unpacking the meaning of ‘Dirty Computer’, where Janelle Monáe is finally allowed to be herself

In the New Dawn era, difference is a crime. Technology is a weapon to see every citizen’s every move, and memory is treated as a threat to the new order and wiped off with the substance Nevermind. The allegories of our modern fear of the dominance of technology in our lives and the many ways in which history is rewritten for the benefit of 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 fixed on the same audience – a reminder to those who have ever been told that they do not fit into the fact that there is a world beyond this harsh and a set of tools who 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 town called Little Delta, and a rare black face in the upper layers of New Dawn who presides over its town. authoritarian regime a day, cracking down on Doc Young and his illegal street remixes of Nevermind. At night, she seeks out the excitement of life beyond the rules, and after meeting her transgender boyfriend, Alethia 56934, at a dive bar, Seshet begins to uncover more of her past before becoming “the queen of the white city.”

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Even those who have escaped New Dawn’s regimental world remain haunted by the horrors they witnessed, as evidenced by the story “Nevermind,” co-written with Lore, who follows the rebellious Jane 57821 who broke free from the regime when she chose to remember. Now Jane is hiding in the Pynk Hotel, a municipality in the desert that consists exclusively of women, and is struggling to be taken over by the memories of her old life and the threat of being found by New Dawn. The women meet in groups called “chords” and are portrayed as radical, free-thinking artists, like many of the other main characters throughout the anthology. In this world, artists, musicians, painters and designers are the physical embodiments of freedom and are conversely 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 help colored women, who are so often the most overworked and under-resources. Elsewhere, “Save Changes” (co-written by Delgado) contemplates the trampled time travel story in which Amber, whose late father gave her a stone that can turn back time, weighs the potential side damage of interference.

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

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

And other stories about dirty computer

Harper Voyager. 336 pp. $ 28.99

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