Darling Days

iO Tillett Wright

Virago, £9.99

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THE cops called it “the asshole of the universe” and gave it a wide berth, especially when the Hell’s Angels were having their annual Fourth of July celebrations. The tenement iO Tillett Wright lived in was a building that would repel “normal” people.

Not everyone remembers pre-gentrification New York fondly. It was, famously, dirty, dangerous and deteriorating fast. But for the 32-year-old writer, filmmaker and transgender activist, the Lower East Side was where, amidst a culturally mixed and desperately poor community of “people with fuses permanently lit”, she acquired the toughness she would need to survive. The early chapters of Darling Days are as evocative a love letter to the New York of the early 1990s as has ever been written, peppered with tiny, precise details of urban life and glowing accounts of discovering the city’s vibrant diversity in the Brazilian Day Festival or the “wild, Jewish gangster vibe” of Little Odessa. “It’s all about giving away what you don’t even have,” Wright writes now, “and that’s what my ma loves so much: gangster socialism, ghetto generosity.”

Central to this memoir is Wright’s difficult relationship with her mother, Rhonna, and the latter’s sad decline. She’s introduced as an Amazonian figure: a streetwise dancer and health freak who was always on her feet unless she was actually sleeping; a stubborn, opinionated mother who didn’t see why iO should be given a front door key, because if it was still light outside then she should be out playing. But Rhonna was also someone struggling to make ends meet, waging continual battles against landlords, attracted to paranoid schizophrenic men and given to furious rages. As her already chaotic childhood progresses, iO sees Rhonna become increasingly strained, her cocktails of Desoxyn and alcohol bringing on psychotic episodes. In one of her life’s big turning points, “the best and worst move I will ever make”, iO tells the truth about her home life to the school’s guidance counsellor.

I’m mostly using the feminine pronoun for convenience here, as the bulk of Darling Days covers the time before iO adopted a non-binary identity with a slight preference for “he”. But at the age of six, after being knocked back from a ball game because the boys in the park didn’t play with girls, iO told her dad she was going to be a boy called Ricky from then on. The flipside of iO’s unstructured, bohemian upbringing was that her parents unquestioningly went along with her decision. But that didn’t help her feelings of alienation from her peers, the bullying or the fact that she had to negotiate puberty and the problematic issues of gender and sexuality with only her own wits to guide her.

Darling Days follows iO up to the age of 22, by which time she’s accepted that looking to her mother for approval, advice or a role model simply isn’t a sensible option, and that any change would have to come from within herself. It’s an engrossing, gritty memoir, weighed down with a guilty sense of betrayal. Nevertheless, sustained by the three strong strands of home, family and identity, it never flags or flounders.