The timing of Janelle Monae's debut short story collection, The Memory Librarian, is eerily prescient.
Texas has passed a law that restricts classroom instruction on controversial social and historical issues. School districts across the United States are asking that educators teach "both sides" on atrocities like the Holocaust. Politicians are knowingly lying, trying to make us doubt, even erase our memories, and Monae has taken note. "One of the main points that's super important is about the threat of censorship, memory censorship," she says on the LGBTQ&A podcast. "Memories are essentially our stories that we tell ourselves to survive."
Expanding on the world created in her career-defining album, Dirty Computer, Monae writes of a future where memories can be controlled and erased. Surveillance is everywhere and a courageous few seek to hold on to their "dirtiness."
It's a dark yet plausible warning for the future, but the stories (written in collaboration with Alaya Dawn Johnson, Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Dany Lore, and Sheree Renee Thomas) also offer profound moments of queer joy and romance. The first sex scene in the book is between two women, one of whom is trans. "I'm always trying to represent the people that I think are just beautiful and need highlighting," Monae says. "This love story is just about love."
At the start of her career, like any young, unknown artist, Monae knew she had a lot to prove. But this is 2022: she now has eight Grammy nominations, has been deemed a global fashion icon, and has starred in the Academy Award-winning, instant-queer classic, Moonlight. She's not the same person she was 14-years ago when she first signed to Bad Boy Records and she's looking at her career with eyes anew, those of one of the most respected and revolutionary artists working today -- when I told my friends I was interviewing Janelle Monae, I was met with shrieks and more than one "yaasssssss".
Monae feels that seemingly universal love. "I'm being super present. I'm laughing more. I'm partying with my friends more. I'm more relaxed as an artist," she says. That's reflected in The Memory Librarian, and she predicts it will affect her music too. "My music is probably going to be, without giving too much away, less heady and less about fighting against opposition...I can do that in other ways, but in terms of what I want to listen to when I'm out with friends, I want to be able to curate that a little better than I have in the past."
With the release of Dirty Computer in 2018, Monae shared publicly for the first time that she identifies as pansexual. At that moment, she knew she was ready because if her sexuality was not accepted or supported, it didn't matter.
"Nobody tells me what to do. I knew that this was the time for me. I'd already talked to the necessary folks, and I was at peace. I'm still a super private person," Monae says. "I have no interest in releasing who I'm dating or not dating. That's not important. But what I did feel was important [was] that representation of what it meant to live in your truth, regardless of friends or family supporting it, regardless of people having opinions."
And this new, joyous album that awaits, when will it be released? "In my heart, according to my soul clock," she says, laughing. "But I'm in such a good space. It's going to be fun. I'm excited." Until then, The Memory Librarian, while set in the future, urges readers to not ignore the messiness of our current moment, for it's the key to unlocking a better tomorrow.
"We lived in a nation that asked us to forget in order to find wholeness," the book says, "but memory of who we've been -- of who we've been punished for being -- was always the only map into tomorrow."