Janelle Monae singing into a microphone that she's holding in one hand while her other hand is raised and facing the camera

A Q&A with Janelle Monáe on ‘The Memory Librarian’ Debut

Before appearing at Town Hall Seattle, the artist and actor discusses her debut book, Afrofuturism, and storytelling.

by Amanda Ong

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Janelle Monáe is a singer, songwriter, actor, producer, an eight-time Grammy nominee, and a household name — and she’s from the future. In the decade-plus that Monáe has been performing and making music, she has already made major waves in Afrofuturism. Throughout her career, Monáe has used science fiction to express the societal and personal battles of gender identity, racial identity, political violence, sexuality, memory, and radical love. 

Now, Monáe continues to explore science fiction and radical justice in her debut 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.

This Monday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m., Monáe will be speaking at Town Hall Seattle to celebrate the launch of The Memory Librarian. Monáe will be joined onstage by Delgado and singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile.

The Memory Librarian marks Monáe’s first foray into literature but includes the same powerful themes of radical self-acceptance in societies of oppression seen in many of her previous works. Monáe, who has identified as pansexual since 2018 and recently came out as nonbinary, has been using allegories of androids to discuss discrimination against Black and queer love since her first solo work in 2007, Metropolis. Metropolis and her following three albums form the Metropolis concept album suite, which follows Monáe’s android alter ego, Cindi Mayweather. Her 2018 album and accompanying “emotion pictureDirty Computer follows Monáe as another android, Jane 57821. 

The Memory Librarian builds from the world created in Dirty Computer, where a totalitarian regime threatens to wipe the memory of all who it deems “dirty.” This time, with a team of writers, Monáe again guides us to imagine our own futures of love and self-acceptance in The Memory Librarian.

Before joining us this Monday at Town Hall, Monáe took the time to speak to our readers at the South Seattle Emerald about The Memory Librarian, her journey into literature, afrofuturism, and more.

You’ve been making music that deals in Afrofuturism and in android and “dirty computer” metaphors for almost 15 years now. How has that vision changed over time, especially considering the political and social changes over the years?

Well, I am from the future. I’ve always felt that, but I understand it in a fuller way now. So one thing I will say is that over time, across those albums and now this book, I am bringing back more of the future with me. I am bringing back more of my future, freer, self and blending that into the art I make. These “changes” aren’t new. Censorship is back. Gender discrimination and queerphobia are back. It looks and sounds a little different, so we find new ways, different ways, to be loud against it and most importantly to be seen. I want my communities seen, and that takes internal work and growth as well.

Your albums have always been concept albums with well-developed and innovative storylines, with The Memory Librarian a continuation of this world: What made you want to take the leap into literature, and what was that transition like? 

I am developing my eye as a director. I directed my last video, for “Turntables.” So, honestly, film and scripts were a bigger influence on my vision for The Memory Librarian. These are ideas, of course, but I had to see it — I need to see things, in my mind. So movies and visuals helped me conceptualize. But as for literature, I have always been a sci-fi and fantasy fan. I read a lot and wrote my own stories as a child. Sometimes, the things within you take a long time to find their moment. The way the pandemic slowed us down — well, it slowed me down — it gave me the opportunity to really sit with some of the story ideas that, I’m sure, are seeded in my curiosities from my earlier life. Talking with all the collaborating writers, they all said they’d 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 make literature. This is something new.

Dirty Computer created an illustrative world when it was released. What inspired you to continue the world in writing, and to do so as a collaborative effort? 

Storytelling in writing gives you a chance to really set something on paper and let it expand. That was the appeal. For example, in the book, in the story “Nevermind” that I created with Danny Lore, we go back to the Pynk Hotel from the emotion picture and the “Pynk” video and get to really think about what would be the realistic challenges and conflicts in a place that aspires to be woman-aligned, woman-supportive. You don’t have time to do that in a short movie that has to cover a whole album, but in this book we gave ourselves the time. And each of the collaborators, they all have strengths. If you are putting a band together, you want people with particular talent with different parts of playing or recording music. That’s how the book works. It’s a little symphony of black and brown nonbinary and women-identifying creators. 

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 aren’t the first to say it, but we are affirming it with these stories. And there are black queer people and black nonbinary people and pansexual people … there is a beautiful black spectrum in the future, as there is right now, even though some people try to erase it. I hope the book keeps that vision, that reality, alive for people being actively erased right now. 

What are some conversations or topics you’re looking forward to speaking about at the Town Hall event?

This is my first time really being back on the road since before the pandemic. I am really just looking forward to seeing my people, first and foremost. All the conversations in the cities at the front of the tour — Brooklyn, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago — they were all different. You know, the stories in The Memory Librarian are spread all over the country. So I am just curious to hear how Seattle comes to the book and looking forward to talking about how we’re all just trying to find our way back to being present and creating memories.

How has the writing and collaboration process for The Memory Librarian changed you? How has it changed the way you imagine, and particularly imagine Black futures?

It’s helped me realize that too much living in the future takes its toll. Be future … in the present. That is what I am learning, and all the collaborators have helped me so much to get that thinking and that living down on the page. I am so grateful to them.

Virtual tickets to “A Conversation with Janelle Monáe and Yohanca Delgado” at Town Hall Seattle are available for purchase online.

The South Seattle Emerald is a media partner with Town Hall for the April 25 event and will have a table set up at the venue — stop by, say “hi,” and pick up some swag! We look forward to seeing you!

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Shawn Robbins under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

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