Review: ‘The Memory Librarian’ (2022)

Cover of 'The Memory Librarian' book (2022). Features an edited image of Janelle Monae in 'Dirty Computer' (2018).
Source: Harper Collins

With six stories ranging from micro-fiction to novella in length, The Memory Librarian (2022) extends the dystopian world that thespian-musician Janelle Monae has been constructing for at least 15 years. Working with five acclaimed speculative fiction writers (Alaya Dawn Johnson, Eve Ewing, Danny Lore, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas), Monae weaves her own discography and the science-fiction classics that inspired it into a debut collection that insists upon black-queer politics and black-queer futurisms. 

Librarian’s recurring theme is the importance of communal memory to political resistance, which is metaphorized through rebel characters who “remix” Nevermind : a gaseous chemical that erases deviants’ memories in order to maintain the social order of New Dawn. New Dawn is a fascist metropolis, but it nonetheless contains pockets of resistance that thrive and survive in its neglected districts.  

In Librarian’s stories — namely “The Memory Librarian” (co-written with Johnson) and “Nevermind” (co-written with Lore) — representations of transness that were only alluded to in Monae’s otherwise outspoken Dirty Computer (2018) find rooting in principal, trans characters with complicated lives — lives that are touched by both pleasure and hardship. 

The title story (“The Memory Librarian,” co-written with Johnson) was by far my favorite piece in the collection, both for its sensitive sketch of a rebellious, black trans woman (Alethia a.k.a. Lethe), and for its vivid depiction of New Dawn. This story seems to be the heart of the collection, dramatizing its revolutionary investments (see: protagonist Seshet’s gradual defection from New Dawn’s government), and fleshing out an exciting magic system (see: disc jockeys’ abilities to “remix” Nevermind into an intoxicant). 

I’ve been of two minds, however, about “Nevermind” (co-written with Lore). Not because of the quality of its writing or its story arc, which were fine (I enjoyed its considerations of non-punitive justice, and of the disappointments we face as we try to ‘find our people’). My issue with the story is that I suffer from a continued ambivalence towards Pynk, which I see as an essentialist feminist concept. Even with an explicitly nonbinary character (Neer) starring alongside Jane 57821 (one of Monae’s dirty-computer personae), and even with a sharp critique of transphobic feminists, by choosing to set this story in Pynk Hotel (a women’s commune depicted in Dirty Computer’s emotion picture), the writers confine the narrative to oversimplified conceptions of femininity and womanhood. This story suggests that anyone who identifies with womanhood is welcome at Pynk, but it doesn’t sufficiently (re)consider what womanhood is, or how pynk could be an alternative to normative gender categories. 

The four stories that cushion the title story and “Nevermind” — “Breaking Dawn” (solely authored by Monae), “Timebox” (Ewing), “Save Changes” (Delgado), “Time Altar(ed)” (Thomas) — have promising moments, but they ultimately feel less grounded in the sleek aesthetics of New Dawn. They’re emotionally resonant, but lack the tightness and focus that could have turned a decent collection into an excellent one.  

**I received an Advance Reader Copy through NetGalley in exchange for a review.

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