Books

iO Tillett Wright
Darling Days

iO Tillett Wright has had a lifelong interest in overhauling aspects of identity, but the artist’s startling name, after Jupiter’s moon, “the most volcanic object in the solar system”, was a birthright. Darling Days is partly a memoir of those identity switches, and it is fertile territory: iO was born a girl, but lived as a male from age eight to 14, later delivering the much-viewed TED Talk “Fifty Shades of Gay”. But it’s also a memoir of the remarkable people who would name a child this way, especially iO’s mother, Rhonna.

“They invented the word glamazon for women like my mother,” iO explains. “Mix one part unicorn, three parts thunderstorm, two parts wounded bull” and you could approximate her vibe. The reason? Mid-1980s New York, which iO calls “a primitive time”, when a working model such as Rhonna “had to be able to show her teeth”.

The “kaleidoscopic insanity” of this period in that city is richly and lovingly profiled. iO reminds us, as others might, that the Bowery Hotel used to be a 24-hour petrol station, but goes a step further: “Two mangy dogs roamed between the pumps, so dirty and caked with exhaust grease that one’s fur had turned green, the other one’s blue.”

With details like these, iO matches texture with texture, treating a crowded landscape with sensory prose. It’s unlikely that a child under five would exhibit the kind of recall the author deploys, but there’s no reason to let plausibility get in the way of an excellent story. Both as child and adult, iO comes across as an awake, aware, noticing person, one who feels each individual moment at the level of the skin. iO has a crazed childhood, taking acting gigs in Budapest as early as nine. As such, the artist is often hunting for sanctuary and silence, which is found on the rooftops of apartments, where Rhonna cakes her child in sunscreen and they relax in the sweltering heat.

In the memoir’s biggest shift, iO at 13 calls the Bureau of Child Welfare on Rhonna, ending up in a boarding school in the English countryside that smells of “black tea, oiled wood, and wool sweaters”. There iO finds the space to explore sex and art, but is always drawn back to the city. It’s the impossible tension between loud and quiet that defines iO’s story, a tension the author relentlessly questions and adeptly describes.  CR

Virago, 240pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 17, 2016 as "iO Tillett Wright, Darling Days ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR