In ‘My Name Is Iris,’ a Mother Learns the Limits of Protectiveness

MY NAME IS IRIS, by Brando Skyhorse

In Brando Skyhorse’s second novel, a conservative Mexican American woman in an unnamed border state rebuilds her life after divorce, in an America that has become an increasingly dangerous white supremacist society.

Iris Prince believes that following the rules will save her from racism — that if she makes herself as benign and palatable as possible, she will thrive despite her brown skin and Mexican heritage. Her life is measured and calculated, and she offers the world a muted disposition and a deep desire to be unnoticed.

Her mother, Dolores, an undocumented immigrant, raised her to blend in, to be like “them” to transcend her circumstances and change her generational karma. This form of protection eventually becomes a poison. “The mask protected me and, without recognizing it, became who I was,” Iris explains matter-of-factly.

As the book title suggests, her name is critical to her narrative arc. A schoolteacher unable to pronounce her legal name, Inés, began to call her Iris instead. She and her parents accepted the renaming and Inés dissolved into the ether. Many children of immigrants will find this erasure all too familiar, as white authority figures who do not want to be inconvenienced won’t make room for people unlike themselves.

Iris’s underlying anxiety is heightened by a horrific hate crime she narrowly escaped in her childhood. But as a mother, she turns out to be not that different from her own, raising her 9-year-old daughter, Mel, to value safety and conformity. “I couldn’t unsee the chaos,” she reflects. “Had youth made those sights easier to ignore, or had I lost something essential — something alive — in me that now equated silence with security, and noise with danger?”

Motherhood can be difficult for a brown woman in the United States, even one who is comfortably middle-class, and Skyhorse turns to the conventions of the supernatural to slowly bring this alive. When Iris moves into a predominantly white suburban housing development with Mel, she begins to see a mysterious wall in her front yard grow taller every night. Frantic, she seeks help to remove it, yet no one but her daughter confirms it’s there.

The wall becomes a sort of societal gaslighting, a symbol of what we people of color know, but is not acknowledged. And it’s not merely a literary device pointing to a dystopian future; the book is being published at a time when Texas has installed razor wire and a barrier of buoys at entry points along the U.S.-Mexican border.

As the novel unfolds, we watch the development of a full-blown surveillance state. A plan to require the wearing of state-issued “bands,” as a form of identification and link to resources, is touted for its convenience and regard for the environment. But only citizens can obtain these coveted bands, and even then, the children of immigrants, like Iris, are excluded.

It’s a grim story, though humor offers some relief. Iris can be sardonic and ruthless in her observations, especially about her simple and ineffectual ex-husband. “Alex would pontificate on topics such as immigration or drug addiction,” she thinks, “only insofar as he could relate those themes to television episodes.”

She admits to enjoying social media pile-ons over a glass of white wine, and is titillated when she sees someone get arrested on the street. She’s aroused by the vitriol — until it finds her.

Skyhorse (“The Madonnas of Echo Park”) took an artistic leap writing from a woman’s point of view in this novel. A risky choice, but writing is about reaching. Iris is nuanced and compelling, though I do wish he had woven in more everyday details about being a woman that could have added texture to the character.

Still, it was satisfying to read about a demographic so often invisible, to see a community brought into focus through a woman with an inner life that is layered, confusing and at times unflattering. Narratives like this are rare, and I was grateful for it.

Erika L. Sánchez is the author of “Lessons on Expulsion,” “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” and “Crying in the Bathroom: A Memoir.”

MY NAME IS IRIS | By Brando Skyhorse | 257 pp. | Avid Reader Press | $28

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