Janelle Monáe explores the idea of memories in her first book

The multi-talented artist will be at Chicago’s Harris Theater on Friday evening to share more about her first venture into the literary world.

Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe explores the idea of memories in her first book

The multi-talented artist will be at Chicago’s Harris Theater on Friday evening to share more about her first venture into the literary world.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Janelle Monáe is known for her music and roles in movies such as Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Now, she can add being an author to her list of talents.

Monáe drew inspiration for The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, which was published this week, from her 2018 album, Dirty Computer.

The Memory Librarian explores a totalitarian future in which thoughts can be controlled or erased by a select few. It does not matter whether one is a human, artificial intelligence or something else — the characters’ fates are not in their own hands. The society they live in, New Dawn, tightly regulates memories, dreams and individuality to ensure conformity. Memory collection boxes convert the collected memories into currency. Gender nonconformity and queer sexuality get citizens classified as a “dirty computer.”

The book’s themes include identity expression, technology and love.

Monáe identifies as pansexual and nonbiary, and incorporates her experiences into her work.

She will be in Chicago at 7 p.m. on Friday for an event hosted by the American Writers Museum at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

The artist recently joined WBEZ’s Reset to talk about her first venture into the literary space. Here are highlights from the discussion:

On the world she imagined for the book:

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer
HarperCollins Publishers
“So this memory librarian is born from the soil of a computer. Dirty Computer deals with the new dawn, and the new dawn is basically kidnapping people that they think are ‘dirty computers’ — those from the LGBTQIA+ community, Black folks, anybody that refuses to assimilate. They’re taking them, wiping their memory clean and making them have new identities and forcing them to assimilate. And so The Memory Librarian centers around these five stories that center Black and brown, some queer protagonists who fight back against the New Dawn, and they are on this journey of self-love and discovery. We have a story that deals with, what does it mean to reclaim your time? You know, you’ve lost so much time fighting against the system. What if there was a room in your apartment that you went into, and every time you go into this room, time stopped for you? How you could do anything that you wanted off the clock? What would you do? How would you utilize that time?”

On a central question in the book: Who holds your memories?

“You can hold your memory and other people around you can hold your memories. I’m encouraging everybody to be their own memory library, to create their own memories, to write them down. I feel like memories determine the quality of life that we have. We are memories.”

On what her life has been like being openly pansexual since the album Dirty Computer was released:

“It’s been incredible. I think, you know, a lot of people look at it as a declarative moment. It was a moment of celebration. When you spend so much time being told, ‘Oh, if you are this way, if you identify this way, then you should be more patient. I grew up in a very religious background and was always like, something’s wrong with you if you are that way. I’m just so happy that I don’t believe that. I’m so happy that people who follow my story that can relate to me don’t believe that. We’re here and we’re thriving and we’re choosing to give ourselves permission to find joy and to love ourselves and not listen to certain people. […] I’m in the most carefree space that I’ve ever been in.”

On what kind of life she hopes for her nieces and nephew:

“One where they don’t have to even think about if they identify as queer or nonbinary They don’t have to think that they won’t get the support from their friends or their families or they will be challenged or they can’t talk about it in school. We live in a world right now where you have [Gov.] Greg Abbott in Texas who is banning discussions in books and conversations with kids around the LGBTQIA+ community. People are trying to push out critical race theory and not even talk about race. So I hope that I can live in a world where we are talking about these things, that people’s identities are not being erased at a young age, and that they feel empowered to walk in this country with their heads held high and not being apologetic for who they are.”

On doing projects in multiple creative spaces:

“I just do what my heart feels called to do. You know, sometimes I’m not ready to make an album. Sometimes I’m not ready to write a book. Sometimes I’m not ready to write a book, I’m ready to write a film, you know? I’m going to be stepping into directing as well, so I’m excited about that chapter of my life. But I’m a moving, breathing kind of artist where I go where my spirit is called and I don’t place a limit on myself. I live outside of the binary when it comes to what I can do. Like, I never allowed anybody to say, ‘Oh, just because this is your skin color, you should be doing this type of music.’ Now I know that telling stories, I think it’s my thing. So I’m always trying to tell stories and fashion and music.”

On what inspires her right now:

“I’m super into, like, people who are carefree, who are just like in the moment, like thriving. I’ve been doing parties with my friends from this group called Everyday People and those are the people that are inspiring me right now. […] I can say I’m living life right now, like I’m present. I’m always in the future, and now I feel like I’m the most present.”

Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.