Book Review: The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer
by Janelle Monáe
Publication Date: Apr 19, 2022
List Price: $28.99
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Imprint: Harper Voyager
Parent Company: News Corporation
Read a Description of The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer
Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
When I think of singer-actor-fashion icon Janelle Monae, the word eclectic comes to mind. She is everywhere in the media, on every platform. Along with a popular ad for the new electric car, she plays a tech entrepreneur in the upcoming murder mystery film, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery — the sequel to 2019’s Knives Out. However, literary critics have sat up and took notice of her debut book, The Memory Librarian.
Sometimes the creator is as much a fascination as the creation. A native of Kansas City, Kansas, Monae came from a hard-working family, with her janitor mother and her father who drove a garbage truck. Her neighbors were amazed at her soulful singing at the local Baptist church and declared her exceptional in the area musical productions of The Wiz and Cinderella. She started her rise to stardom in 2005 when she was asked by rapper Big Boi to perform on several Outkast tracks. Later, she was signed by producer Sean “Puffy” Combs to his Bad Boy label. Her debut album, The ArchAndroid, reached top 20 on the Billboard chart in 2010 and got a Grammy nod. The follow-up album, The Electric Lady, dropped in 2013, featuring singers Prince and Erykah Badu. She counts President Obama as one of her fans.
A free-thinker, Monae, who considers herself a pansexual, has always been influenced by the science fiction genre. When she released her first album, her futurist music was informed by the 1927 German expressionist film, Metropolis, with her robot creation Cindi Mayweather mirroring the wicked android of the noted Fritz Lang masterpiece. A few pundits compared the music of the first album with the concept of a soulless dystopian world with the allegory of a cruel Negro existence under the rigid Jim Crow laws.
Without the overriding taint of ego and arrogance, Monae has constructed The Memory Librarian, a collection of five short fiction which explores some of her preoccupations with sexuality, gender, race hate, and a suffocating police state. This book is a revelation with its complex, complicated moral and philosophical themes and concepts. In this Dirty Computer existence, everyone is cataloged, labeled and squeezed into the confining societal boxes. Who doesn’t want to be white? Who doesn’t want to be a hetero male or woman? Who doesn’t want to be included in the prevailing culture?
In her introduction, Monae sets the limits of the New Dawn tyranny where rebellion or riot seemed futile: “The social majority — those who were already so commonly seen, that they felt the Dawn’s sight was the same as their own — for them, there was safety. The perception of it. The assumption was that they had nothing precious, no difference or unusual coding, to conceal. That they fit. But as the hungry Dawn grew ravenous, they found ways to chew into all of us — past the encrypted walls of our minds and into our reservoirs of glitches and emotion. Into our pooled memory — the fragments of where we’d been, of who or what we ‘d touched, those blood bytes that mapped the paths of our future steps.”
Throughout this book, Monae is very considered with living the authentic life, to be free of emotional and gender ties. In mainstream music, a headliner would collaborate with another artist to add more color, texture, and meaning to the work. The versatile Monae has teamed with first-rate progressive authors like Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eva L. Ewing, Vohanna Delgado, and Sheree Renee Thomas. Each story has its own distinctive flavor, its own thought-provoking narrative, and its own multi-layered concepts.
Like her collective musical vision and literary collaboration, Monae avoids the pitfalls of many anthology collections, voices yelling at fever pitch yet becoming muddled in their depiction of the oppressive authoritarian state, New Dawn. In the watchful world of New Dawn, high-tech surveys each and every citizen, punishing those who buck the rules, sniffing out all differences.
In the title story, “The Memory Librarian,” Monae and Johnson explore Sashet, the director librarian of Little Delta and the token black in the powerful group who influences all things. Sashet has a hunger to live outside the box and becomes enchanted with a transgender gal-pal, Alethia 56934 and the society of underground bars. This is a tribute to shattering boundaries and stereotypes, as only Monae could.
“When I was growing up, I would always look to people who pushed those boundaries, like Grace Jones,” Monae says. “She was absolutely pushing the boundaries. You get the sense that she did not care to be traditional. She played around with so much of her energy. She honored her masculine, her feminine, and everything in between. I got a sense of that when I looked at David Bowie and when I looked at Prince.”
One of the stories, “Nevermind,” co-written with Lore, is one of the book’s high points, reinforcing a reoccurring theme of collective resistance and defiance. Here, this is a renegade community where women and non-binary people can avoid the suffocating environment of patriarchy, capitalism, and monogamy. Monae, in this story and others, values the concept of community, the life-affirming importance of people validating you, and the recognition of those beings who love, admire, and respect.
The final story, “Timebox Altar (Ed),” co-written with Thomas, depicted a group of children who produce an altar that can propel them through time and space. This tale is full of wonder, word wizardry, and awe. It reminds one of Bradbury, Asimov, and Dick in their prime. The concept of a future enables the seeker to search for their best life, which is possible if one only envisions it.
“More important, Ola began to notice the faces of the people she passed,” Monae writes. “People of all identities, nations, and ages, looking happy, sheltered, well-fed, and remembered. It was a marvelous thing to be seen, truly seen, and not walked over or peered through as if you didn’t exist, as if you should not exist.”
Finally, this release of the publication by Monae and her team of able assistants, The Memory Librarian, brings to us some bold, unvarnished truths about technology control, societal pressures, gender and identity, love and sex, memory and time, but with a generous dose of humanity. There are no occasions of gross negativity and vulgarity here, although some of the issues are quite current and timely. At the same time, this book unites sharp imagination and intellect with an open mind and a sense of healing. Very memorable and nonconforming, this is a book that nourishes the soul as it warms the heart.