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Janelle Monáe's 'Dirty Computer' comes alive in a new collection of stories

In a new sci-fi book, musician Janelle Monáe expands on themes from her Grammy-nominated album <em>Dirty Computer</em> to tell stories about a community of individuals whose identities are being erased.
Jheyda McGarrell
In a new sci-fi book, musician Janelle Monáe expands on themes from her Grammy-nominated album Dirty Computer to tell stories about a community of individuals whose identities are being erased.

Updated April 17, 2022 at 2:10 PM ET

Our memories, our dreams and our emotions — these are the parts of us that exemplify our humanity. But in Janelle Monáe's new collection of short stories, The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer, those are the things that contaminate us — they make us "dirty."

The Afrofuturistic world of "Dirty Computer," first explored in Monáe's Grammy-nominated album from 2018, now fills the pages of a new book. Co-written with authors Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado and Sheree Renee Thomas, the five fictional narratives find Black and queer protagonists grappling with how to embrace their full selves in a world set out on erasing their individuality.

Janelle Monáespoke to NPR's Weekend Edition about the nightmare that sparked the sci-fi world of "Dirty Computer," the oppressive revolution her characters live under, and creating art in a way that feels authentic.

The Memory Librarian hits bookstore shelves on April 19.

<em>The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer </em>comes out on April 19.
/ HarperCollins
The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer comes out on April 19.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

On the inspiration behind "Dirty Computer"

It came to me in a nightmare, actually — a nightmare that I was kidnapped. I went to the movies, I got popcorn, was [sitting down] and everybody was scattering out of the theater. I was like, "I just want to watch a movie." One of the ushers was trying to tell me to come through a back way so that they could protect me because they're kidnapping people. I did not listen to the usher, and I was kidnapped. All of my memories were wiped clean. I didn't know who I was. The only thing that I remembered [was] just showing up as somebody completely different.

And so, I put all of that energy into the album: Why would somebody want to erase who I am? Why would they want to erase all of these folks' memories? And I put that into, you know, representing a community full of people whose stories are being erased, whose identities are being erased.

On the "New Dawn Revolution" that has taken place in the short stories

New Dawn is evil. They are "divide and conquer" people — start with marginalized people first, make them hate themselves, erase their memories of who they are and create them into something we want them to be so we can control and we can have power.

On Seshet, the titular character in the short story, "The Memory Librarian"

This particular story explores the sort of precarious position of a Black queer woman trying to navigate her authority and her vulnerability within an institution of power. They tell her, "You can be powerful if you just do this." And so, it touches on how identity is exploited by politics. Seshet oversees all of Little Delta, and Little Delta is an area that is the intersection of the New Dawn order and this sort of rebellious sub-world. Seshet is sort of like this insider-outsider that represents that intersection and conflict.

I came up with this particular story by asking myself: What if you were the person who knew everybody's memories and you also knew everybody's secrets? What does that mean when you want to fall in love, when you know everybody's secrets? How do you fall in love? How are you truthful? Can you be truthful?

On being your authentic self as an artist

I think I'm becoming more and more authentic in the way that I express that truthfulness. I'm in this space where I'm just like [in] the most "I don't have anything to prove" space in my life that I've ever been in. I think having conversations with women, with artists who've come into the industry — there have been moments, specifically at the beginning of their careers, where we have felt like, "Okay, we got to prove that we can do this, we can do that, we can do this, etc."

Sometimes what you really want to do can take a backseat because you feel like, "I have to prove this first and then I'll get to that." And I'm at a space where I'm making the most fun music I've ever made, just for the people that I love and care about around me, for us to vibe out to. [I'm] just curating my life in a way where I can do that. You know, giving myself permission — and I think with this book, I hope that people feel the permission to show up as their authentic selves. When the world tells you that everything about you — your queerness, your Blackness, you being a woman, you wanting to be an artist on your own terms — when people try and stop that process from happening to you, you then saying, "I give myself this permission."

On whether the fictional Pynk Hotel — which exists outside the constructs of binaries, monogamy and capitalism — is a reflection of Monáe's ideal world

It is a world that I would like to see more of. When Danny Lore and I were working on [the short story] "Nevermind," we wanted to get an opportunity to talk about what it means to discuss sexuality plurality, gender plurality and nonconformity. What is personal identity versus national conformity? These are all themes within the story. What does it mean to search for acceptance and love? I think with "Nevermind," where the Pynk Hotel exists — and you saw it in my video, Pynk — [the characters] survive a battle at the Pynk Hotel. Not only a battle for the hotel's survival against New Dawn, but a battle over what its ideals of feminism mean as it stretches to embrace all identities.

On whether it's possible to love someone with whom you fundamentally disagree

I think we're having those conversations within our communities. We're having those conversations about a more radical approach to community, love and forgiveness. I don't have all of those. That's why I love books. I love sci-fi. I love fiction. I love being able to ask myself, "Hmm, which one of these characters am I? Would I make that decision? Wow, maybe I should make that decision." Maybe people in my community could benefit from me listening to some of these characters and implementing that into my own space.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
Melissa Gray is a senior producer for All Things Considered.