The artist builds on the Afrofuturistic world from her 2018 album in a new short story collection titled The Memory Librarian. She tells NPR about her nightmare that inspired the project.



Our memories, our dreams, our emotions - these are the parts of us that exemplify our humanity. But in Janelle Monae's new collection of short stories, those are the things that contaminate us. They make us dirty.


JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) Dirty computer, walk in line...

RASCOE: That's right. The world of "Dirty Computer," first explored in Monae's Grammy-nominated album from 2018, now fills the pages of a new book out this week. It's called "The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories Of Dirty Computer." It's a collection co-written by Janelle Monae. The musician, actor and now author joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MONAE: Hi. Ayesha, I'm so happy to be on your program.

RASCOE: Oh, thank you. Well, how did you come up with this concept of the "Dirty Computer?"

MONAE: It came to me in a nightmare, actually - a nightmare that I was kidnapped. I went to the movies, I got popcorn, was seating, and everybody was scattering out of the theater. And I was like, I just want to watch a movie. And one of the ushers was trying to tell me to come through a back way so that they could protect me because they're kidnapping people. And I did not listen to the usher, and I was kidnapped. All of my memories were wiped clean. I didn't know who I was. And that's, like, the only thing that I remembered is just showing up as somebody completely different. And so I put all of that energy into the album of the why would somebody want to erase who I am? Why would they want to erase all of these folks' memories? And I put that into, you know, representing a community full of people whose stories are being erased.

RASCOE: What is the New Dawn revolution that has taken place in these stories?

MONAE: New Dawn is evil. They are divide and conquer people. Start with marginalized people first, make them hate themselves, erase their memories of who they are, and create them into something we want them to be so we can control and we can have power.

RASCOE: Each of these short stories has a co-writer, including Danny Lore, Sheree Renee Thomas. The memory librarian, who is the title character in the title's short story, she is a Black woman in an elite space grappling with her identity and the compromises that she's had to make. How do you see the role of Seshet, the memory librarian?

MONAE: This particular story explores the sort of precarious position of a Black, queer woman trying to navigate her authority and her vulnerability within an institution of power, right? They tell her you can be powerful if you just do this. And so it touches on how identity is exploited by politics. Seshet oversees all of Little Delta, and Little Delta is an area that is the intersection of the New Dawn order and, like, this sort of rebellious subworld. And Seshet is sort of like this insider outsider that represents that intersection and conflict. I came up with this particular story about asking myself, what if you were the person who knew everybody's memories and you also knew everybody's secrets? What does that mean when you want to fall in love when you know everybody's secrets? How do you fall in love? How are you truthful (laughter)? Can you be truthful?

RASCOE: And Seshet has some issues with that. Like, no one is their whole self at work, but there is a point where your work identity becomes inauthentic or fake. But as an artist, you feel like you have been able to express yourself, right?

MONAE: I think I'm becoming more and more authentic in the way that I express that truthfulness. I'm in this space where I'm just like the most I don't have anything to prove space in my life that I've ever been in. You know, I think having conversations with women, with artists who've come into the industry and been in the industry, there have been moments, specifically, like, at the beginning of their careers where we have felt like, OK, we got to prove that we can do this, we can do that, we can do this, duh duh duh da (ph). Sometimes, what you really want to do can take a backseat because you feel like I have to prove this first and then I'll get to that. And I'm at a space where I'm making the most fun music I've ever made, like, just for the people that I love and care about around me, for us to vibe out to.

And then just curating my life in a way where I can do that, you know, giving myself permission; and I think with this book, I hope that people feel the permission to show up as their authentic selves when the world tells you that everything about you - your queerness, your Blackness, you being a woman, you wanting to be an artist on your own terms - when people try and stop that process from happening to you, you then saying, I give myself this permission.

RASCOE: Yeah. You know, I wanted to kind of end on this idea of the Pynk Hotel, which is a fictional place in one of the short stories where people disregard the constructs of binaries, monogamy, capitalism? You know, their focus is on art and freedom. Like, is that your idea of paradise, of your ideal world?

MONAE: I think it is a world that I would like to see more of. And I think, you know, when Danny Lore and I were working on "Nevermind," we wanted to get an opportunity to talk about what it means to discuss sexuality, plurality, you know, gender plurality and nonconformity. What is personal identity versus national conformity? These are all things within, you know, this story and within the short stories. And what does it mean to, you know, search for acceptance and of love? And I think with "Nevermind," where the Pynk Hotel exists and you saw it in my video "PYNK," Jane and Zen and Neer, who's nonbinary, survive a battle at the Pynk Hotel - and not only a battle for the hotel's survival but a battle over what its ideals of feminism mean as it stretches to embrace all identities.

RASCOE: But there is a part where I did wonder with that, is it possible to love someone who you disagree with so much? If they - what if they just going to keep being a snake in the grass? What if they going to keep - you know, because the instinct might be, I got to get this person out of here. I'm going to tie you. I'm going to throw you away. I'm going to whatever. Is it possible to love someone through all of that?

MONAE: I think we're having those conversations within our communities. We're having those conversations about a more radical approach to community love and forgiveness, I guess. And I don't have all - everything - and that's why, like, I love books. I love sci fi. I love fiction. I love being able to ask myself, which one of these characters am I? Would I make that decision? Wow, maybe I should make that decision, you know? Maybe people in my community could benefit from me listening to some of these characters and implementing that into my own space.

RASCOE: We've been speaking with Janelle Monae. Her new book, "The Memory Librarian," is out Tuesday. Thanks so much for joining us.

MONAE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.