On Medicine for Melancholy
On some days/ I don’t think I want to stay where I came from/ these days/ I don’t know if I belong/ anywhere
I’ve watched Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy more times than I can remember. That’s how much the Moonlight director’s debut means to me. My body still recalls the sensation I felt the first time I experienced the film. In the moment, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. But whatever it was felt concentrated and true.
It wasn’t until I wrote a song inspired by the movie that I realized why it resonated so strongly with me. The contrast Jenkins sets up between the film’s two leads did something major for me: it made real the sense of pitchy-patchy in-betweenness I’d been feeling my whole life. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Cities everywhere are filling up with people from all over, living at the intersection of old and new ways. Our numbers are growing. I hope sharing my feelings here might help others find their home in the in-between.
Medicine for Melancholy is the story of Micah and Joanne, a twenty-something man and woman who extend their one-night stand into a day-long meander around San Francisco. This was 2008, years before the firehose of identity thinkpieces started to flow. And here was a romance delving into topics I’d never heard anyone speak explicitly on before: the undeniable whiteness of the indie scene (that’s my scene!); the question of how central race is to defining yourself (I struggle with this!); the important symbolism of fixed-gear bikes (it was 2008!).
Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Joanne (Tracey Heggins) are both black, but they portray vastly different ideas of blackness. Micah is an activist who frequents the Museum of the African Diaspora, believes Black History Month is a conspiracy to saddle us with the shortest month of the year, and identifies first and foremost as a Black man.
Joanne goes to the Museum of Modern Art with her white boyfriend, points out that February was chosen to coincide with Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, and believes blackness is only one part of her full self.
As the affair prolongs, they debate back and forth, wrestling both with their intensifying connection and the differences that define them.
I don’t know if Barry Jenkins wanted us to pick sides, but I’ve never been able to. I’ve always felt a bit of Micah and a bit of Joanne inside me. And I’ve spent most of my life weaving between their points of view.
My formative years were split between two very different cities: Orleans and Malton.
Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa, was white, middle- and upper-class, and suburban. My high school was attached to a brand new wave pool and ice rink. The cafeteria served meatloaf and green peas. Kids did their airbands to Christina Aguilera.
In Malton, a suburb of Toronto, my Catholic school was predominantly black Jamaican and Italian, from the lower and middle classes. We ate beef patties and penne á la vodka for lunch. At school assemblies girls humped the ground to Heads High by Mr. Vegas.
I moved back and forth between both places, depending on my family’s situation. In each, a different version of myself would emerge. In Orleans, “like” was an insistent part of my vocabulary, spoken with a hint of a valley girl accent. My friends spent their summers going to cottages.
In Malton, “like” was replaced with “guy” — to boys and girls, in true Toronto fashion — and my accent turned to that ambiguous blend of Jamaican-American-Canadian that constitutes the local cockney.
At the time, it didn’t feel like much to switch between the two. Actually, it was quite natural. I had plenty of practice following my Caribbean mother’s method of adaptation. I could always tell when someone official was on the line because she’d flip her Grenadian lilt upward into the characteristic rise of Canadian politeness. Her r’s were more pronounced: “arrr as in Richard, a as in apple, y.”
I’ve since become aware of the notion of code switching. But back then, when my accent changed, I wasn’t code switching. I was coping.
For a long time, in my mind, this was the pathway to acceptance: find a group, adapt to their way of being, and hopefully — eventually — pass as one of them. It was how I sought out that elusive feeling of belonging we humans crave.
But it never really worked.
In Orleans, my friend’s Dad still greeted me with “yo yo yo Alanna, whaddup?” Never anyone else.
In Malton, when I told somebody I was from Ottawa they’d nod knowingly, “so that’s why you sound white.”
In Orleans I was black and different. In Malton I wasn’t black enough. In neither place did I fully belong.
That’s a hard space to inhabit, because it isn’t really any space at all. I can’t imagine what it must be like for immigrants trying to carve out a new life here. Compared to them I had it easy: if worse came to worst, I had the coup de grâce in my back pocket: “I was born here!”
It took time, but eventually I developed a new skill: the self-embrace. I gained it by picking up tips from other in-betweeners.
People like dancer and choreographer Dana Michel, my childhood neighbour in Orleans, who won the Silver Lion award last year at the Venice Biennale for the unique body language she has willed into existence. And Zadie Smith, whose essay on language as a survival mechanism spells out what’s lost by trying too hard to fit in. Or Barry Jenkins himself, who found his voice making a movie about black people navigating the hipster world, then turned it into an opportunity to tell another unique story: Moonlight.
All three — like so many in-betweeners before them and assuredly many more to come — dove into murky waters and picked up something along the way: a singular vision.
The world is filling up with more in-betweeners today than ever before. Immigrants like my Mom and Dad, who bravely chose to uproot everything they knew for a new place they’d never truly feel at home. People like me and my friends, the first generation born here instead of Jamaica, India, Syria, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Croatia, the Philippines and France. And those who feel it perhaps deepest of all: the Bob Marleys, Sades and Ameries of the world, whose roots are anchored in multiplicity.
And that’s where this essay takes a twist. Because I’ve come to believe that our lack of fitting-in — while it makes life far more difficult — is also our greatest advantage. That existing in this unsettling, uncomfortable place is also what pushes us to forge our own path.
There’s a paper by the mathematical sociologist Ronald Burt that gives credence to this notion. It’s called Structural Holes and Good Ideas. It’s fifty-two pages long but I’ll save you the time of having to read it. His whole argument can be summed up in a single line:
the structural holes between groups provide a vision of options otherwise unseen
Or, as he goes on to put it more practically and less poetically:
people who stand near the holes in a social structure are at higher risk of having good ideas
I believe that’s the space where I’ve come to exist. All those years of living in-between and fitting in nowhere unexpectedly led me to fill a void between two strands of music — the dancehall and indie rock worlds — that few others could see. In the end, it came about naturally. And while it wasn’t deliberate, it seems fitting that the song I wrote about Medicine for Melancholy inhabits that space.
Medicine for Melancholy’s Micah and Joanne showed me a new place to exist. I found comfort sitting in their pockets of dialogue. Their tense interactions and opposable points of view ripened into deeper understanding, and inspired realizations about myself.
Before Medicine for Melancholy, I lived my life oscillating between two versions of myself. But Medicine for Melancholy showed me how new possibilities exist in the in-between — however lonely it may be at first.
Instead of trying to squeeze myself into different ways of being, I picked the parts that felt right to me. I pastiched a new mould, custom-made from my experiences living in different places, with very different people.
Don’t get me wrong. It still sucks sometimes. It’s still work. I walk into indie shows not expecting to run into anybody who looks like me. And when I venture into rooms full of black people I don’t know, my old Malton feelings stir up again: a subtle, friendly skepticism.
But I have grown to accept the discomfort. And to thrive in it.