When gender revolutionary and artist iO Tillett Wright told his first girlfriend, Nikita, stories about growing up in gritty late-’80s New York City, he was surprised to see tears streaming down her face. “I’m so sorry you had to live through that,” she said. “What do you mean?” he asked. Her reaction, and that of readers, will probably be the same: How could someone live through so much and turn out okay?
Raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a dilapidated, roach-infested building crowded with junkies and artists, iO’s childhood was a blend of gut-wrenching poverty and cultural abundance. Occasionally, friends let him crawl through their windows to finish off their leftover dinner because he was so hungry, especially when his erratic mother was in one of her fits of rage or long, bleak stretches of depression. But at other times, she would sneak him into the second half of Broadway shows to ensure his artistic growth— and when iO, assigned female at birth, decided as a small child that he preferred living as a boy, she accepted his wishes without question.
iO has a poet’s gift for metaphor and breathtaking turns of phrase but retains the raw honesty and attitude of a city kid. Perhaps his greatest gift as a writer is his ability to describe his lifelong struggles with gender identity and sexuality.
Darling Days isn’t comprehensive. It’s rare for a New York City memoir to skip over 9/11, as this one does, and it ends rather abruptly in 2008. But here’s hoping iO is saving the rest for the next book.