The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe, ed. (HarperVoyager 978-0-06307-087-5, $28.99, 336pp, hc) April 2022.
Celebrity writing projects can be an iffy prospect. Writing is a particular craft, one that doesn’t necessarily translate from acting or songwriting, and the results can sometimes feel less like an act of creativity and more like a vanity project. That is absolutely not the case with Janelle Monáe’s The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer. Monáe and her contributors – Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas – have produced a vivid, visceral text with as much of a hook as the album the stories were inspired by.
Each story in the anthology covers different characters and moments in time in this alternate version of our world. We are introduced to the world of Dirty Computer through Johnson’s ‘‘The Memory Librarian’’. Seshet is the titular character, a woman who enforces the authoritarian goals of the New Dawn by harvesting and erasing memories. Compliance, or being ‘‘clean,’’ is god here. Those who cannot or will not conform are deemed non-compliant, or ‘‘dirty computers,’’ and removed from the population. Some have escaped the city while others have found ways large and small to resist. Despite her powerful position, Seshet is Black and queer, so she must work twice as hard to prove her loyalty. When she develops feelings for a trans woman with a dirty computer past, Seshet’s whole identity is thrown into chaos.
‘‘Save Changes’’ by Delgado is about two sisters dealing with the aftermath of their dirty computer mother being cleaned (think reeducation but worse). Amber and Larry carry the burden of their parents’ rebellions. Their father is dead, their mother behaves like a glitchy computer, and they are outcasts from society. After a wild and illegal party, Amber is offered the chance to undo the past. But there’s a catch, one that will make or break her choice. ‘‘Timebox’’ and ‘‘Timebox Altar(ed)’’, by Ewing and Thomas respectively, also deal with time. In Ewing’s story, two women living in an era before New Dawn takes over discover the pantry in their new apartment exists outside of time, while in Thomas’s, a group of children living in the lands outside New Dawn, build a portal that shows them alternate futures.
My favorite of the anthology is Lore’s, ‘‘Nevermind’’, about a group of women and a nonbinary person living in a safehaven called Pynk. Scouts from New Dawn have tracked them down and the only way to survive is to stand their ground. This is no utopian society. Lore doesn’t depict the people at Pynk as all in agreement. Each is dealing with their own trauma, feelings, beliefs, and prejudices. A divide erupts between the TERFs and everyone else over Neer, a nonbinary AFAB engineer. As a heavy-handed attempt at diversity, people often lump everyone not cis men into ‘‘women and nonbinary,’’ without first considering how it makes us nonbinary people feel. To me, it’s like being tacked onto a group that isn’t built for us. It feels like tokenized diversity.
Lore, a queer author who also uses they/them pronouns, deftly explores that tension in a way I rarely find in fiction. There are conversations about how safe a space can really be when some of the people it’s meant to protect are an afterthought, levels of privilege within marginalized identities, and the way queer people police and gatekeep queerness. Those at Pynk are dirty computers as far as New Dawn is concerned, and a few Pynk residents have decided some of their siblings are too dirty to fit in their refuge.
In fact, all of the stories dig into those themes. We see how privilege and power play out in various ways and how those ways are shaped by social and political forces beyond individual control. We see what happens when you choose to build what you were denied rather than something new, when you transfer the same oppressive structures onto a new foundation. Afrofuturism gives Monáe et al. the room to have these complicated conversations by focusing on the exquisite diversity of the Black diaspora. Blackness is not a monolith. There is no single, unified Black community.
In Monáe’s introduction, she lays out the premise of the anthology and sets the worldbuilding stage. New Dawn is a place of the
social majority – those who were already so broadcasted, so commonly seen, that they felt the Dawn’s sight was the same as their own – for them, there was safety. The perception of it…. That they fit…. Even before the Dawn, we lived in a nation that asked us to forget in order to find wholeness, but memory of who we’ve been – of who we’ve been punished for being – was always the only map into tomorrow.
This anthology may be speculative, but the reality of her words can be seen every day. From book bans to anti-Critical Race Theory bills, from creating and perpetuating a fog of fear around non-compliance to laws requiring educators to out queer children and threatening to imprison librarians for stocking queer books. We are on the precipice of our own New Dawn. I hope we can find our map into tomorrow instead of choosing to force the marginalized to be ‘‘overwritten, or just erased.’’
Alex Brown is a queer Black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of Napa County, California’s marginalized communities. They write about adult and young adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access set the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-increasing piles of books.
This review and more like it in the April 2022 issue of Locus.
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