Books & Talks

iO Tillett Wright Finds His Music in Darling Days

We caught up with the New York artist and activist, who's en route to Powell’s this week, to talk about his new memoir.

By Lisa Dunn September 26, 2016

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Image: Ryan Pfluger

“There are not a lot of people like me telling their story right now,” says iO Tillett Wright. “So I wanted to get it right.”

Before twee cheese shops and clothing boutiques took over, the East Village was home to Hells Angels, tweakers, and broke artists; Times Square was still ground zero for all things unsavory and men in knock-off Elmo costumes and tourists were few and far between; and the city was experiencing a wave of Gotham-esque grit and crime. That is the New York into which Wright—photographer, activist, and now the author of a captivating, graceful new memoir—was born. Assigned female at birth, at the age of 6, he decided to live as a boy named Ricky. Wright has lived outside of the gender binary since. 

Wright is the creator of Self Evident Truths, a project in which he photographs LGBT individuals around the country in an effort to create visibility and confront the dehumanization of the queer community.

And now the artist, whose work has long engaged with questions of identity and visibility, adds memoirist to his resume with the release this month of his much-anticipated Darling Days.

The book, written in a lyrical, cool-headed voice, is a collection of stories about Wright’s life growing up with a fiercely protective but mentally ill mother and a heroin-addicted father. It chronicles the extreme highs and lows experienced from birth until the book ends with a 22-year-old Wright dealing with addiction, mental illness, and growing up gender fluid in a world that begs for binary. But it’s also, on a larger level, about culture and identity, and the struggle to be seen and heard in order to feel fully human.

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We talked to Wright ahead of his Portland visit—he reads at Powell's on Thursday, September 29—about what it’s like to write about a self who no longer exists, the different forms storytelling can take, and the ephemeral nature of truth.

There are some pretty dark moments in here that could have weighed any other book down. How did you approach those?

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out my thoughts. It was a cathartic process, just putting it all out there. But I am disconnected from the child who experienced those things. I looked at a lot of photos from [my mom’s] archives from, you know, pre-zero throughout my life to help with the writing process. That’s a version of myself I had disconnected from a long time ago.

So the iO I’m talking to isn’t the same iO in the book.

Absolutely not. That iO has been gone for a long time.

So when you say in the beginning of the book that this is a “collection of stories intended to capture [your] life,” did these words capture the truth about your life?

Well, truth doesn’t exist. There’s just experience. You know, you have three people who all experience the same thing, and all three walk away with different stories. And the notion of a memoir as a factual recounting of truth is off the mark. This is my emotional experience. If you ask how this all felt, then yes, this is true—my experience.

There are photos of you and your mother and your life throughout the book, and it adds another dimension to the story.

Well, when you say you’ve lived as a gender different from how you were born, that can take many different forms. I wanted to illustrate it for people, make them understand. I also wanted photos of my mother in there so people would see her humanity. You are looking her in the face, and that changes the way you read the book and the things she did.

What was the writing process like?

It’s a literary memoir before anything else. You only get to write your memoir once, you know? I didn’t want to fuck it up, so I was very meticulous. The idea was a series of vignettes that weren’t necessarily absolutely chronological, but gave a sense of moving forward. Basically: I have this memory, which brings up this other memory, and so on. Initially it was 140,000 words, which is, you know, way too huge. Then it got cut to 100,000. It was just draft after draft, making lists, color-coding.

It’s kind of like a gigantic mound of clay. You have to whittle it down and work it, and underneath the clay, you have a beautiful piece of art. Or, to put it another way, I discovered my own music.

So is this process anything like your approach to photography?

Everything that I care about is storytelling. Portraiture is about the stories that people’s faces tell. Humanity strikes me—everything about it. And I like work that illuminates. Everything about bringing human beings together. That’s what Self Evident Truths is for me: storytelling and social action, letting people see who we [the LGBT community] really are.

What do you want people to take away from your book?

For all of the things my parents got wrong, they supported who I said that I was. That fostered a sense of self-respect that allowed me to survive. I hope that young people will find a sense of peace [in the book]. You don’t need to be in a box of identity. You can just be you.

iO Tillett Wright is at Powell’s City of Books at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 29.

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