iO Tillett Wright on NYC's Golden Days & His New Memoir
Before the Lower East Side was full of trendy bars and cafés, it was iO Tillett Wright’s home. His childhood was an interestingly diverse one, though at times tumultuous—and his upcoming memoir, Darling Days, chronicles his trajectory from a kid growing up in New York City to an internationally acclaimed writer, photographer, and activist. We sat down with iO to find out what it was like writing such a personal book, and what he learned in the process.
How has New York changed since your childhood?
It sucks! I grew up in a New York that was where all the weirdos went, the people who had been kicked out of somewhere else, and that’s what made it really exciting. I think it still is that, but the city—at least the part where I grew up, and my mom still lives there—it’s totally gentrified now. And I don’t have a problem with money coming in, and I don’t have a problem with there being businesses. But the problem is that all the interesting weirdos can’t afford to be there and the culture has really suffered. New York just feels like it’s like a banking town now.
Do you think growing up around all those weirdos influenced your childhood?
It was everything. They affected my whole concept of what normal was. Everybody had an identity that they had invented, and [it] was totally accepting and exciting. It was inventing [a] version of yourself [that’s] more than the one that you were born in.
When you were working on Darling Days, did you dig up anything cool from your childhood?
My mom saved everything that I’ve ever done, ever. But I also had all my old journals. The main thing that she has is 2,500 photos of every fucking second between 1985 and, like, maybe five or ten years ago, and that archive was incredible. When writing a book, that’s the kind of thing you dream of having access to, and I did, so I’m very lucky in that regard.
Were your journals your biggest resource for the book?
My journals were really helpful but I had a crazy childhood—if you can put a sentence together and you had a crazy childhood, someone is going to suggest that you write a book. It happened earlier than I thought it was going to happen. The idea was to write a series of vignettes, so that every chapter is its own little nucleus that survives on its own. You can read one chapter and it would have its own beginning, middle, and end. I sat down and tried to think of every instance, every specific moment, where something happened that was relevant and important, and I made a list. It was 65 chapters, so I wrote a 145,000-word book. And then we had to cut it down. It’s like 108,000. It’s a big motherfucker; you can knock somebody out with it. But don’t be daunted by that—apparently it’s an easy read.
“They kicked me out because they were scared I was going to start a revolution.”
You also lived in Germany for a bit?
I lived there for two years and England for two years. I was an actor when I was a kid, and I was just busting through and getting some breaks, then I got taken away from my mom by the government and I got sent to live with my dad in Germany. I went from New York City where there’s 300,000 people in a three-block radius, to this tiny German town of 300,000 people total. Then I got kicked out of this town and sent to a boarding school in England where there were 55 kids in a house in the middle of nowhere—and then I was like, “How the fuck did I get here? Nothing can be further than my dreams. Wait… I love this place.” I fought to stay there, but they kicked me out because they were scared I was going to start a revolution.
A black student came for prospective week and he had dreads. And he was the ideal student, he had read all the literature—they were a vegetarian, super-hippie school—but they rejected him because they said his dreads might be offensive to people from other countries and they may have to ask him to shave. And I was like, this is bullshit, this school is fucking racist. And other students got on my side, and even some staff members, and then they kicked me out.
So when did you come back to New York City?
In the summer. I lived with my mom from when I was 16 to 22 and shit was heavy and dark. I did so much coke in my 18th year that I had to have my tonsils removed. I went through all the shit that native New York kids do. Did it all too early. It was so ugly. I got out of it pretty quick, but for a while that was my world. I was a super poor kid growing up in the East Village, trying to figure out how to survive. And I was also trying to figure out, am I gay? Am I straight?
At that point, I wasn’t even asking if I was a boy or a girl—that didn’t come until I was 28. I lived from six to 14 as a boy, and then decided I wanted to try living as a girl, so I did that from 14 to 28. And then at 28, I was like Hold up, maybe I’m actually a man. And all that questioning has taken me to now, where I identify as a trans man and I use male pronouns. And my dad was like, “We’ve been expecting this since you were five years old.” For my parents, the gender shit didn’t matter—what was important was creation, making things, art. My parents are both artists. My mom’s a performer and a poet, and that’s the shit they care about.
You also have a photo series, Self Evident Truths. What did you learn from that?
I’ve been to all 50 states and I’ve photographed 9,803 people. I’ve been everywhere and spoken to every different type of human, who’s been through every different horror that I didn’t have to deal with as a kid because my parents were accepting.
When I went into it, I was afraid of the South, because I grew up in the city. I was like, Oh, they’re all Bible-thumping hicks. Then I went down there and realized that there’s a tremendous amount of love, respect, [and] manners and shit that we don’t have. I’ve seen southern Baptists who left the church because their kid came out as gay and they didn’t want their kid to have to deal with hatred at church. I’ve also seen southern Baptists who have completely disowned their gay children.
“I’m part of the LGBT community by default, but I’m 95 other things, too.”
But when you get to know people, that takes away the stigma and the fear. Expose yourself to more and you will be afraid of less.
I think the beauty in the project is that it reflects humanity because we’re all so different. We are the LGBT community, yeah; we have one identity in common, but a lot of the people I photograph are firemen, or truckers or teachers or moms, and they identify more with that than they do with being LGBT. There’s all these identities people attach themselves to—there are just as many Republicans or jocks who are LGBT as there are [people who fit] the gay, queen-y stereotype. And that’s the important thing to remember: I’m part of the LGBT community by default, but I’m 95 other things, too.
Images courtesy of iO Tillett Wright.
Look out for the official Darling Days unveiling tomorrow, and stay tuned to Milk for more on our favorite creatives.