Unfolding in animated, crystalline prose, an emotionally raw, devastatingly powerful memoir of one young woman’s extraordinary coming of age—a tale of gender and identity, freedom and addiction, rebellion and survival in the 1980s and 1990s, when punk, poverty, heroin, and art collided in the urban bohemia of New York’s Lower East Side.
Born into the beautiful bedlam of downtown New York in the eighties, iO Tillett Wright came of age at the intersection of punk, poverty, heroin, and art. This was a world of self-invented characters, glamorous superstars, and strung-out sufferers—ground zero of drag and performance art. Still, no personality was more vibrant and formidable than iO’s mother’s. Rhonna, a showgirl and young widow, was a mercurial, erratic Glamazon and iO’s fiercest defender, her only authority in a world with few boundaries and even fewer indicators of normal life. At the center of Darling Days is the remarkable relationship between a fiery kid and her domineering Ma—a bond defined by freedom and control, excess and sacrifice; by heartbreaking deprivation, agonizing rupture, and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Darling Days is also a provocative examination of culture and identity, and of the courage and resilience of a child listening closely to her deepest self. When a group of boys refuse to let six-year-old iO play ball, she instantly adopts a new persona, becoming a boy named Ricky—a choice her parents support and celebrate. It is the start of a profound exploration of gender and identity through the tenderest years, and the beginning of a life invented and reinvented at every step.
Review by Annie Anthony
Volcanic memoir, Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright
Author: iO Tillett Wright
Publisher: Harper Collins
Release Date: September 27, 2016
The debut book of actor, artist, and activist iO Tillett Wright, Darling Days, in ironic contrast to the nearly-perpetual hunger of the author, is a vivid feast, a banquet of scenes of the author’s hyper-awareness of humanity and the position of each person at the table…positions which are frequently uncomfortable, but always vivid, alive, and unflinching.
The book starts with a letter to Rhonna Wright, the mother who used plastic bags instead of a purse; the woman who lived in not one but two low-income housing units refusing to leave until the walls were literally being demolished around them. Rhonna is the personification of a “flame that can’t be extinguished” as she is called by one of the many brilliant, broken bohemians who take residence in the first half of the book. The reader can’t help simultaneously wanting to run as fast as possible to the comforts of someone, anyone else, someone like iO’s godmother whose embrace is as “cozy as if she sleeps in rabbit fur,” and yet somehow also feeling fiercely loyal and protective of the woman whose insistence on sunshine and air, whose inability to be bogged down by the details of feeding and housing and clothing a child, whose daily ballet classes and brutally chaotic love for her “bud” gives the book its name.
From the Brazilian parade awash with sweat, sequins, and samba to the building on the Third Street that—tenuously—houses those beset by “poverty, illness, bad luck, addiction,” the first half of the book is visually unforgettable.
But as Rhonna descends, iO grows up and as the author describes develops an instinct for self-preservation. Throughout the narrative, we hear iO loud and clear. The small child who shares the anxieties of not being able to use the school bathrooms, who has been groped and ignored and welcomed at turns in the world of young boys, and who experiences adventure and misadventure all over the world develops into the hero of the story, even as the author says, “My ma is burning, I threw a match in her hair…” Darling Days is a survivor’s anthem.
This memoir in many ways is as much an “inconvenient vessel” as the author describes the body that contains the words and thoughts of Tillett Wright.
Inconvenient in that the first half of the book is alive with so much so that I had to frequently remind myself that the harrowing sights, the memorable voices, poetic details were in fact real, true. This is not a novel, not a poem, yet the first half of the book is a lyrical, chaotic work of art, at times not entirely restrained by the structure of narrative.
While this is a memoir, some readers might find the deliberate but inconsistent choices in verb tense and chapter length, the mindful insights of a story told not by the child narrator but about the author-child in present tense distracting. While the technical elements of the book may in places stretch the reader a bit beyond the ordinary, comfortable narrative space, viewed as a whole, the story, the city, and the “misfits” who inhabit it are simply un-put-downable.
Some story-level inconsistencies, dips into second person, and some overwriting may have been the result of an editor so enamored with the story and words that a few fine details slipped past—entirely understandable when the writing is as much as Tillett Wright’s is.
The author acknowledges at the end of the book “every person who had the opportunity to force me into a box in my formative years and didn’t.” Likewise, categorizing this book, shelving it under one genre or label (such as family, gender, sexuality, addiction) would reduce the beautiful wrecked portrait to something safe and sanitized as a postcard.
The “darling days” were few but brilliant for Tillett Wright, but the impact of the story on the reader will be complex and lasting. This is a book to read and re-read
Meet iO Tillett Wright
iO Tillett Wright (born September 2, 1985) is an American artist, director, photographer, writer, film maker, activist, and actor. Wright grew up in New York, and was a professional film and television actor for 18 years.