THE MEMORY LIBRARIAN AND OTHER STORIES OF DIRTY COMPUTER
by Janelle Monáe
Harper Voyager, 321 Pages
reviewed by Kristie Gadson
In her latest album Dirty Computer, songstress and visionary Janelle Monáe sings of a future bathed in the blinding light of a new regime. In a world where an individual’s inner circuitry—their deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires—faces judgment from the illuminating eye of New Dawn, freedom is sought out by those who find liberation in the shadows. Monáe’s songs follow the story of Jane 57821, whose queerness made society view her as a deviant with unclean coding—a “dirty computer.” Dreaming of a better future, Jane 57821 broke free of the chains of New Dawn by daring to remember who she really was, sowing the seeds of revolution in her wake. The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer is a collaborative work with influential writers of the Afrofuturism genre, exploring the expanded mythos Monáe created through her uniquely futuristic yet funky sound. Taking place in the same universe as Dirty Computer, The Memory Librarian is a collection of short stories set after Jane 57821’s daring escape.
In the introduction “Breaking Dawn,” Monáe’s world unfolds like a memory uncurling itself within the corners of your mind. She sets the scene for stories to come, detailing the rise of an all-seeing regime hungry to peer into the clandestine inner networks of its citizens. What Monáe does well is that she immerses you in the story through her evocative writing, utilizing a distinct voice that merges the technological with the thoughtful, the analytical with the sentimental. Through her writing you feel the underlying humanity in an age where living beings are reduced to technical components, regarded coldly as “computers.” But what I found interesting was the last line of “Breaking Dawn,” in which Monáe beautifully introduces the larger themes interwoven throughout her stories: “Beyond time and memory—where the computer cannot reach—is dreaming.” This line calls upon the reader to consider the interconnectivity of time, memory, and dreams, and the cost of a future without them.
The presence of New Dawn serves as a critique of modern society’s intolerance of diversity, sexuality, and gender expression. New Dawn is the amalgamation of all the prejudicial laws and ideologies that persisted unabated in the nation’s past, which the reader comes to understand is our current day. In order to enforce their idea of what is socially acceptable, New Dawn developed technology to harvest, manipulate, and erase the memories of the populace. But as Monáe warns: “Memory of who we’ve been—of who we’ve been punished for being—was always the only map into tomorrow.” It’s this overarching theme that unites the different perspectives across her narratives.
Monáe and Alaya Dawn Johnson challenge our understanding and perception of memory in the titular story “The Memory Librarian,” where we get the perspective from inside the ivory towers of New Dawn. Seshet serves as Director Librarian of a city called Little Delta, and her job is to collect and analyze the memories of its citizens to ensure compliance with the New Dawn ethos. Under her watch, anyone who is revealed to be a dirty computer is sent to a New Dawn facility to have their memories erased, a cruel process called “torching.”Seshet was on her way to rising the ranks, until falling in love with a mysterious woman named Alethia 56934 sets off a series of events that threaten to undermine New Dawn’s influence over Little Delta. Facing an impossible choice between love and duty, Seshet considers doing the unthinkable to maintain control. It’s through Seshet’s inner turmoil that Monáe and Johnson beg the question, who are we without our memories—those encrypted echoes of the past that make us who we are and guide us into who we will become? In a world that violates the sanctity of memory, are we not the owners of our own soul?
“Save Changes” switches perspectives to the other end of the spectrum of New Dawn’s influence, following the life of a family under near-constant surveillance. Amber and her sister Larissa live as outcasts as a consequence of their mother’s past rebellion against New Dawn; their time is monitored throughout the day. To escape their bleak reality the girls attend an illegal party on the outskirts of town, but this adventure turns out to be more than what Amber bargained for. Armed only with a mysterious stone her late father gave her, Amber must decide how to keep her family together with the time she has left before New Dawn takes them away. In this story Monáe and Yohanca Delgado explore an important aspect of time travel: how to make the biggest impact with so little time to make a change. Time is a force we cannot fully control and can barely fathom—so how do we find a way to utilize it to change our lives and the lives of those around us? Yet the beauty of Amber’s story is that she comes to realize that there is never a right time to take action, so long as you have the courage to act in the first place.
The last (and my favorite) story is “Timebox (ALTAR)ed,” where four children discover among the remnants of the past the future they could only dream of. Bug, Olagunde, Trellis, and Artis live in the town of Freewheel, on the outskirts of New Dawn’s “cities of light.” New Dawn took something away from each child—their parents, their homes, their health, their hope. One day they stumble upon the remains of an ancient city in a nearby forest and, with Bug’s lead, they create an altar of found art out of the junk. What I enjoyed about this particular story is that Monáe and Sheree Renée Thomas created a future for the children that reflected their individual talents—Bug the artist, Ola the inventor, Trell the healer, and Artis the lover. Seeing the Freewheel children discover how their gifts can change the future encourages readers to consider how their own talents can shape the future they live in.
What I love about The Memory Librarian is that its stories convey one of the tenets of Afrofuturism: that there is no way to create tomorrow without drawing from the lessons of yesterday. African Americans, as well as other ethnic minority groups, know all too well that those who neglect the past are doomed to repeat it. Remembering our history, both the pain and the triumph, serves as a way to guide our steps into the future we’ve always dreamed—one of diversity, inclusion, and equality. The book centers around another doctrine of Afrofuturism: hope. Despite the current circumstances there always exists the possibility of things changing for the better. And although hope can be a source of motivation to move toward brighter days ahead, it can conversely become a burden that can keep you stuck within the limitations of the present. However, as Monáe writes, to hope means to “work out that invisible balance so you don’t get crushed but also don’t float away.”
As a reader, I enjoy character-driven narratives where the protagonists’ journeys challenge their perspectives and mold them into who they’re destined to become. I also connect with diverse characters who reflect my reality as an African American woman. I love that Monáe’s stories are filled with a unique cast of characters that are unapologetically BIPOC, queer, and feminine. The Memory Librarian spans different experiences and perspectives, from a driven yet fragile Director Librarian whose love is considered “dirty” to a young, black, gender-neutral child whose art is their way of connecting to their long lost mother. I found that I was able to relate to all of the characters, in part, because of the third person personal perspective through which the stories are told. I gained insight into the backgrounds, motivations, and inner workings of the characters from a point of view that explores their individual experiences through an objective lens. However, I also related to the characters because in them I saw pieces of myself: Seshet’s journey reflected my drive to succeed in a white-dominated field, Amber’s life being profiled harkened to my own experiences with racial profiling, and the hope of the Freewheel children ignites my hope for the future as well.
Janelle Monáe’s The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer is a provocative collection of narratives that urges us to take heed of our past, take hold of the time we have, and take action toward creating a better tomorrow for all. These stories ask us to tap into the inner software of our souls to find the courage to be our most authentic selves, to love freely and openly, and to make a difference in the world around us. It’s with Monáe’s final charge that we are called to action: “You’ve got to dream a future before you can build a future. Together, let us begin this dreaming awake.”
Kristie Gadson is a copywriter by day, a book reviewer by night, and an aspiring comic book artist in-between time. Her passions lie in children’s books, young adult novels, fantasy novels, comics, and animated cartoons because she believes that one is never “too old” to learn the life lessons they teach. Kristie resides in Norristown on the outskirts of Philadelphia PA, which she lovingly calls “her little corner of the universe.”