Janelle Monáe’s The Memory Librarian brings Sheree Renée Thomas and Alaya Dawn Johnson together with other writers
Groundbreaking music artist, actor, and overall phenomenon Janelle Monáe released the story collection The Memory Librarian this past Tuesday, which expands the Afrofuturistic universe of her much-celebrated Dirty Computer album.
Monáe has been on tour with the book and its writers. Town Hall Seattle will feature a conversation between Janelle Monáe and Yohanca Delgado this Monday, April 25 at 7:30pm PT. Tickets for virtually attending the event can be found here. Of the book, Town Hall Seattle says,
“Janelle Monáe, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Sheree Renée Thomas have delivered a sexy, soulful, and dissident collection of tales that expands the bold vision of Dirty Computer — in which Monáe introduced us to a world where people’s memories — a key to self-expression and self-understanding — could be controlled or erased by an increasingly powerful few. And whether human, artificial intelligence, or something in-between, citizen’s lives and sentience were dictated by those of the New Dawn, who’d convinced themselves they had the right to decide fate — that was, until Jane 57821 remembered and broke free.”
Clarion West had the chance to talk to writers Sheree Renée Thomas (CW ’99) and Alaya Dawn Johnson about what the project was like and where it took them.
*Note: The following interview happened as two individual conversations combined here for the benefit of the reader.
How did you come to be involved with The Memory Librarian project?
Sheree: I was invited! They’d been planning it for some time. They thought about who they would love to be a part of the project, and they knew my work so they were able to reach out. I thought it was a prank email at first. I had to print it out, and then I started to wave it around. I was squinting at it like that meme with the woman squatting.
Alaya: The day before my 39th birthday I found a message in my spam folder asking if I would be interested in working on a literary project with Janelle Monáe. Since I have been a huge fan for more than a decade and had actually mentioned to several friends over the years how much I’d love to work with her on a literary expansion of one of her albums, I honestly didn’t think the email was real! But just in case, I wrote back, and here we are! It still feels a little surreal, but in a good way.
What was the most rewarding part of working on this project?
Sheree: Finishing the story and really seeing the reaction to it was wonderful. Kind of similar to when my own work goes out there, and having it just going through all the stages of writing to publishing. In some ways, it’s how I felt about my short story collection Nine Bar Blues – you write the individual pieces when they come to you, but seeing them all together is like, “Oh this is actually in the world!” When we got the full story collection it was amazing. Each story gives you a different aspect of New Dawn. This is science fiction so we’re all familiar with post-apocalyptic societies whether it’s from Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Station Eleven, or whatever it is. But the worldbuilding here is about the people who inhabit that space. In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s title story “The Memory Librarian,” for example, we get the chance to see the world through the eyes of someone who ostensibly has a great deal of power in the story. But of course, they have a life changing desire to fall in love. How do you do that when you know the secrets of everyone?
Alaya: I felt incredibly lucky to be given the freedom to really explore the world Janelle built and build out from there. Music and film are very different creatively from how I usually work, and the process of translating and grounding that explosive artistic vision into literature was deeply rewarding. I took aspects of the aesthetics (costumes, set pieces, etc.), the music, the glimpses of the underground scene, and of course the signature memory erasing technology and built it outward into the context of everyday life in a flagship city of the New Dawn regime. I loved being able to stretch myself creatively and contribute to the already existing mythos of the world.
Were you given parameters for your story, or did you have total control over what you contributed?
Sheree: Janelle had a vision for each of the stories; each one came out of her imagination. You’re given the aspect. For example, time poverty. Eve Ewing did “Timebox” where that is inside an apartment and the couple has different ideas on how this should be used, for personal gain or for the community. For my story, “Timebox Altar(ed),” we talked about my fascination with land having that ability and the character Bug. Mine is the last story in the collection and we wanted to end on that sense of happy times. They also wanted to explore children coming of age. I wanted to think about if we could skip ahead of that whole coming out process. In the story, people are very clear about things we seem to struggle so deeply with. You can’t overcome humanity, the extraordinary diversity and complexity we have on this planet. Self-love and care are so important. The characters may not have too many financial resources as outsiders of New Dawn. They can’t really afford to live in the big city, but they created a space of love and care for each other, and that’s what matters.
Alaya: I was given a very brief description of the general arc of the story (about a paragraph), some character archetypes and the desired length. Using that as my base, I really went wild with the worldbuilding, taking my ideas from the album and the emotion picture and building something that I was excited about. Then based on feedback and even more ideas from Janelle and her team, I was able to turn all of that wild creativity into a detailed outline and at that point I started drafting.
What advice do you offer writers looking to be involved in projects like this? (It seems like a unique opportunity to connect fiction and the music world!)
Sheree: *Laughs*. It’s not like The Running Man! I’m not quite sure what to say, because you don’t really seek this kind of project out. Working on a shared world with others, they pick you because of what you do. They pick you because of your voice. Don’t be afraid to be yourself in your writing. It was wonderful, they reached out and had done their research. Like Zora Neale Hurston said, there are the years that ask questions and the years that answer. This felt like a year that answered!
Alaya: Considering that this project practically fell out of the sky for me, I don’t know how useful my advice will be! But in general, I think I was in such a good position to take advantage of this opportunity because I’ve always been very true to my own vision as a writer and what I love to create, and because it happened to fit so well with what Janelle Monáe has created, it made us a natural fit. So if I have any advice, it’s to not let your voice get drowned by others or their ideas of the market. Opportunities like this might be happy accidents, but I think as long as you are doing what you love, you’ll be in a good position to take advantage of them.
How would you describe the current stage of your career, both looking back and what you’ve accomplished so far and plans you have for the future?
Sheree: I’ve had some wonderful opportunities recently. I co-hosted the Hugo 2021 Awards with fellow Clarion West ’99 alum Andrea Hairston, who is a theater queen and great with scripts. It was perfect and fun. Whatever is going on, know that I’m always going to be writing my work. Whether I’m at the con or not, on social media or not, I’m always going to be doing my work. I’m glad people are having a chance to discover and learn more about me. I hope more readers will be able to do that. I’m just excited to contribute to a project for an artist love so much, who I’ve admired from the very beginning, and who has Kansas City roots, where I also have connections. She’s an amazing artist, very brave. And watching how she moves through the universe is so amazing and inspiring, very instructive for me. As for my career, Trouble the Waters, co-edited with Pan Morigan and Troy L. Wiggins, came out in January and Africa Risen is coming out in November, co-edited with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Zelda Knight. And I’m a 2022 Hugo Award finalist as an editor!
Alaya: I think I’m solidly in the mid-professional stage of my career. I’ve won several major awards in our field (Nebula, World Fantasy Award) for both short fiction and novels, and I’m looking forward to publishing my next young adult novel, The Library of Broken Worlds, with Scholastic next year. So I’m excited about what I’ve been able to build and where my career is going from here. I’m ambitious about my career, but I’ve learned that so much of this business is luck and timing, and the only thing I can control is what I write next. So I try to make that next project as true to myself as it can be.