In 2007, I stepped off the plane at JFK – I was 23 and it was the first time I’d been away from home alone. I was there for work. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I was shit scared. But for a naïve Kiwi, New York City was a revelation. This, I felt was somewhere I fit in. Where everyone fit in.
All the things I loved about that city are in Darling Days. It’s the heartbreaking, passionate autobiography from iO Tillet-Wright who you may know as the startlingly beautiful, almost genderless child actor and woman man model.
Set mostly in the 1980’s Lower East Side of Tillet-Wright’s childhood, Darling Days follows iO’s early years navigating gender identity, a mercurial mother ‘Ma’, and the grime of New York City.
The young iO sifts around the Lower East Side, trying to get enough to eat, subtly ring-fencing ‘Ma’, soaking in the good times and weathering the storms. Seen through the eyes of a child, it came almost as a surprise to learn that both parents struggled with drug addiction throughout Tillet-Wright’s whole childhood.
Tillet-Wright describes being impotent against Ma’s dead-eyed episodes. Unable to get Ma to even acknowledge iO’s presence, the episodes quietly crush the resilient child. iO lives in fear of them, not just because of the anger and violence, but for that feeling of invisibility – for the crashing fear that maybe iO never existed at all.
Tillet-wright’s father, Seth a much more benign figure, drops in and out from overseas. He rides the upswings of his heroin addiction, and (thankfully) leaves before the inevitable crashes. It means Tillet-Wright’s perceived sanctuary in Seth is just as unreliable.
Eventually iO finds strength and begins to claw a way out. iO rejects childhood and young adulthood’s drama. But that positive journey comes with grief. By moving forward, Tillet-Wright has to reject and betray Ma – Tillet-Wright’s “goddess”, fickle and terrifying, but blindingly magnetic.
Early on, Tillet-Wright lives as a boy. It seemed that boys got a better deal. They could skateboard, play baseball, run wild. It seemed femaleness got in the way of all that. Prepubescence saw a shift back to the female spectrum. Neither parents bat an eyelid. Freedom, in iO’s case, was the one upside of instability. These days, iO’s gender remains fluid.
The wild freedom of New York City plays as much of a role in Tillet-Wright’s upbringing as Ma and is as prominent a character in Darling Day’s evocative prose. Indeed the two are mirrors of each other – both hot and messy, boiling with hate and love and joy, troubled and despairing, desperately poor, damaging and bewitching. When they’re good, they’re so captivating, they make you forget the darkness.
My New York City experience was undeniably watered down. Gentrified 2003 Williamsburg is a far cry from the needle-covered 1980’s Lower East Side. But even in a post-Giuliani world, the city throbbed with humanity living their truth. Groups of young men practiced their arabesques in the reflective windows of my office building, people told each other to pick up their dog shit, kissed in doorways and talked to strangers on the subway.
It was only an echo of Tillet-Wright’s New York, but it was that which so compelled me. Then, as is now, New York City is a place where I feel most free. Most myself. It’s a city that truly compels us to look inward and just be.