“Can’t You See That the Wall Is Growing?”

In Brando Skyhorse's novel "My Name is Iris," a Mexican American woman finds her citizenship threatened by a new legislation

A fence divides the border between America and Tecate, Mexico, with houses visible above the fence.
Photo by Greg Bulla via Unsplash

Brando Skyhorse’s new novel My Name is Iris, is a harrowing and, at times, darkly funny exploration of one woman’s complex relationship with her own identity as Mexican American in a slightly fictionalized United States. 

Iris (born Inés) is an educated and semi-successful businesswoman. She sees herself as a good citizen, a good mother to her young daughter Melanie, and deserving of a good life. Early in the novel, she leaves her husband and moves into a beautiful new home in a tony suburb. Iris is intent on fitting into a white America that marginalizes her no matter how hard she works. Haunted by the ghosts of her past, Iris struggles to balance the demands of a hostile workplace and single-parenting, and when a strange wall suddenly starts to grow in front of her new house, Iris begins to panic. Although the wall is only visible to Iris and her daughter, its presence exhausts and terrifies her. And when a new law requires citizens to wear a biometric band proving their citizenship status, the illusion of safety Iris has carefully created rapidly unravels and she is forced to make terrible choices to survive. 

Skyhorse and I recently spoke via Zoom about his decision to write from a woman’s point of view, the conservative politics of some Latino Americans, and how his new novel reflects the existential dread of living in Trump’s America.

Yvonne Garrett: Your new novel focuses on a woman—Ines renamed Iris—and her desire to build and maintain a specific type of American life. One that she describes as “responsible, college-educated Mexican American.” She has a mantra: “Rules mean structure, structure means order, and order means safety, which means a life without fear.” Can you talk a little about where the idea for the novel came from? And about the decision to write from a woman’s point of view? 

Brando Skyhorse: If we could all think back to what was going on in 2016. It’s a lot like now—the T-word —that was being discussed a lot, and I was hearing the word “wall” a lot. The word over that summer had ceased to become this dead noun, it became alive, animated. I wanted to try to figure out a way to respond. I was staring out the window. I saw this wall and I heard this voice and it said, “Can’t you see that the wall is growing?” So for the past six and a half years, I’ve been trying to figure out what that voice wanted, what it’s intent was, what it’s agenda was. That voice ultimately belonged to Iris. And because it was a woman’s voice, I said, okay, I’m going to write this from a woman’s perspective. 

I was raised by women—my mother and my grandmother—and essentially this rotating cast of stepfathers, four of whom had been incarcerated or had done some time behind bars. My perspective has always been how a woman runs a household. I grew up learning and, frankly, stressing about all the issues that come with managing a household and trying to raise a kid. And being acutely aware that these were two women who were doing their best to try to raise me in a complicated situation. 

YG: In the opening of the novel, Iris states, “Like every Mexican-American we knew, we worked for everything we had and we hated those who expected handouts.” Much has been made in the media about what they call the “Hispanic” vote—as if that’s a monolithic thing—and the conservative “immigrant” voter—not just conservative Cubans in Florida but the “we’re doing immigration the right way” people. 

I’ve lived on the Lower East Side in New York City for many years, where all of the Latino/Latinx people I’m in community with are to the left of Left. How different is it in LA? And in your personal experience? I’m also thinking about Iris’s own journey from “not in my backyard” protests to where she is at the end of the novel, but also her husband Alex’s secret evening trips with white racists. I also noticed that a lot of the law enforcement characters have seemingly Latino names. 

BS: My experience is that, if you grow up in an environment like New York, you’re used to this multicultural experience. In places like Los Angeles, it can be very easy to get into bubbles: you bubble in a car, you bubble in your neighborhood, you don’t necessarily have to interact with people whose paths you wouldn’t cross, like going into the subway. 

There is a strand of Hispanic Americans who pride themselves on the culture of work ethic and the belief that nothing is handed to them. They worked hard for everything that they have, and when they see footage of undocumented laborers or all the stuff that’s run on the television ad nauseum, it’s belittling, it’s insulting, right? They’ve been so far removed from any experience that’s even remotely like that. They’ve invested in America. They believe in America. They have houses. They pay taxes. They’re Americans first, Mexicans second.

I grew up in Echo Park and I remember that election, Reagan versus Mondale in 1984. I was eleven-years-old. I don’t think I ran into a single Mexican American who was voting for Mondale. They were fiercely Republican! Fiercely “God, Country, anti-abortion, this is who I am! This person speaks to my values!” Which is why when we talk about the Latino vote, the Hispanic vote, or whatever, it’s always shocking to me that the Republican Party is like, “We’re gonna make inroads, and we’re gonna talk to Hispanic Americans outside of Miami,” or outside of areas that are ostensibly conservative, and they somehow always miss a step. “Oh yeah, we have your values, but at the same time, you really know your place.” But they don’t! They believe that they are Americans! That they’ve earned the right to shed that part of their identity and that’s something that’s an experience that was very familiar to me growing up, very familiar interacting with people in Los Angeles. 

One of my father figures was kind of liberal in certain ways, but also staunchly conservative, anti-gay marriage, and “if you’re gonna come here, you gotta come here the right way!” I was astonished! Do you know who you are? And I guess it’s because you get to have that bubble experience where, essentially, all you see is this curated community, this curated neighborhood, and especially this is where colorism factors in a lot as well.

YG: When the “band” is introduced—Ines’s carefully built life becomes challenging and then impossible—in the grocery store, at work, and so on as racist hate builds. As I was reading, I felt almost overwhelmed with dread and fear: this could happen here, and in some ways it already has. 

I was thinking about how in my neighborhood, there was a movement pre-pandemic to boycott “no cash” businesses because they’re inaccessible to the population without bank accounts, who are the most marginalized: the unhoused, people of color, undocumented or low income, but then that conversation disappeared and now they’re everywhere. It might seem like a small thing until you think about how that cuts people off from access and is so much part of a larger oppression. Can you speak about “the band” and Iris’s reaction—first denial, then the desperate decision she makes? 

BS: The idea stemmed from thinking about what’s on conservatives’ wish-lists: finding a way to get rid of birthright citizenship. It was a constitutional amendment proposed by Louisiana Senator David Vitter and Vitter’s amendment that basically said, “You can only qualify for citizenship if both of your parents are also citizens.” So, in other words, you couldn’t cross the border, have your kid, etc. I was really fascinated by that idea and wondered if there was a way to connect that idea to technology. And honestly, the technology is already there: Apple Watch, the iPhone. The idea that the band would be sold as something that would actually save the planet—monitoring your garbage usage, monitoring your water usage—all these metrics. Iris’s stance is “just leave me alone. I’m not interested in the politics of the day. I’m not interested in having hard conversations. I can figure out a way to get along and I don’t have to get involved.” What if she had to? By creating this slow burn with this Trojan Horse of an idea that’s going to help society but with a catch. Iris’s stance [has been] “who cares? I’ve got my own concerns. I’ve got my family, I’ve got my daughter to raise, I don’t have time for that.” This is her worst nightmare—it’s like a wave that just lapped up by her door, three feet high and rising, at what point do you decide “I have to care now. I have to take a stand on these things”?

YG: The definition of privilege is when things don’t affect you. 

BS: That’s the novel’s central conceit: how much is enough? At what point do you say, “Oh, the water’s up to here now, it’s up to my nose. I gotta do something now!” 

YG: There are moments in the novel—she got promoted and now she makes 50% less than her male counterpart—that’s not just a race thing but the reality of being a woman in the working world. And the joy I felt for her when she got her own house away from her jerk of a husband. And then the realization that it’s a total fabrication. 

There is a strand of Hispanic Americans who pride themselves on their work ethic and the belief that nothing is handed to them.

BS: That freedom has a cost and that cost has basically been ignoring—again, the way the band was introduced, this was passed by an election, a referendum, a proposition—loosely based on the California process. To me, even though this book doesn’t take place specifically in California, it’s not that impossible for me to believe that this could happen in California, it could happen anywhere. 

YG: It’s interesting, when people refer to it as a dystopian novel, I’m like “are you sure? Are you sure it’s not just a few years ahead realism?

BS: When I was writing this, I could never keep up with what was happening. It became, let me just look at what’s happening now and report accurately to the best of my ability. So, yeah, I wouldn’t say this is dystopic. If you’re asked when this book is set: nowish

YG: And I think that explains a lot of the dread and fear I felt as I was reading. Now I’m going to shift a little bit and talk about the use of Spanish in the novel. I felt like the use of Spanish increased as the tension ramped up which, for me, really highlighted my own limitations but I also really loved the experience of stopping and looking up all of the words then re-reading. Can you speak a little about your choice to use Spanish particularly in dialogue? And the way that it related to ramping up tension? 

BS: As you so deftly pointed out, the use of Spanish increases as the tension builds in the novel. Iris is reclaiming her identity, so more Spanish is coming out. Iris is having to grapple with [the collapse of] her very cultivated facade of “I’m an American and I know Spanish but I don’t need to trot it out— or only for effect, with my friends.” [The use of Spanish] becomes a central key to understanding Iris’s mindset: seeing how Spanish functions in her relationship with her family, the code-switching between English and Spanish. 

I tried to make this as representative of my own experience with my own family. My biological father left me when I was three, and I didn’t find him again until I was in my mid-thirties. He’d started over and all of a sudden I had three sisters and they all speak in English and Spanish as the situation demands. My Spanish isn’t great, so if I don’t speak it or hear it for a while, I completely lose it. I loved writing the family sequences in this novel, they capture what I feel like my family situation is now. Someone might be saying something exclusively in Spanish and then translate back in English and then someone else might use English and Spanish together and it feels like home now if that makes any sense. 

YG: There is a point in the novel that focuses on forged documents. Without overstepping, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about your own history which you wrote about in your memoir and if that informed anything in the novel? 

I wouldn’t say this is dystopic. If you’re asked when this book is set: nowish.

BS: I was born Brandon Kelly Ulloa. Ulloa is a Mexican American name by way of Spain. It was the 1970s, there was a lot of activism in Southern California, all kinds of Power: Brown Berets, Brown Power, Black Power, and the American Indian Movement. My mother decided to re-invent us as American Indians. She reinvented me as Brando Skyhorse and she reinvented herself as Running Deer Skyhorse. I feel like those issues of identity that we’ve been talking about go all the way back in my family for years. Back in the day when you wanted to enroll a child in school, you didn’t need all these documents, you just went and rolled up to the school. So I was enrolled as Brando Skyhorse Johnson. As I got older, documents [became an issue] How do I cash my financial aid checks? I would have to use a little bit of white-out, Xerox some documents, and hand them over to the Bursar. After a couple of years I decided to apply for a formal name change. My name now is legally Brando Skyhorse. But up until that period. it was a very precarious situation. I [was] in this absurd position—I was born in America and I need papers! This informed Iris’s experience of feeling her legitimate status has been de-legitimized and not knowing how to respond. 

YG: Iris describes her sister Serena’s activism: “My sister’s urgency and activism never extended beyond what she could do on her phone…” I think we all know armchair activists like this, but later in the novel, Serena knows how to get illegal bands—is her activism as limited as Iris thinks, or is Iris’s view of her sister limited based on her own needs to blend in—and Serena’s refusal to blend? 

BS: There’s an evolution in Iris. Iris has lived her life structured, based around absolutes. Because of that experience she had with Brenda, the lesson that she took from that was to live with absolutes and survive. She has a very clear, absolutest view on what Serena is, what Serena does, her approach to the world, and even if Iris may be sympathetic to some of those aims and even at a few points think, yeah my sister actually had a good point there, right? There’s still this sense of—Serena is dangerous because she doesn’t live within the rules and that’s going to cause her problems and then it’s going to cause me (Iris) problems. She’s responding from a selfish standpoint, which is “You’re bringing attention to us. You’re bringing attention to me, you’re bringing attention to yourself. You gotta stop that. You gotta knock that out.” So much of her absolutest position about Serena stems from that sense of you’re causing us to be exposed to scrutiny—don’t do that. You’re young, you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know the danger that you’re putting yourself or you’re putting me in. Iris is frequently unaware of the deep implications of what’s happening, but that’s okay, that’s what makes her mindset at times really confusing. These are confusing times and these are confusing situations that I’ve put this character in. 

YG: I don’t know how I would respond. I think wow—how much braver and yet more difficult it is for someone like Serena. There is that snide comment that her sister makes, but there is also the reality that Serena does have that connect, she does know—where to get fake bands. 

BS: Serena is a survivor in the same way that Iris is a survivor. I hope that one of the things that comes through in the novel is that these two sisters from different generations reconcile and acknowledge that there is no one right way to survive and that survival evolves. It’s different for different people at different ages and what may work for Iris may not work for Serena or vice versa. They’re talking about the [band] amendment and Serena calls it: “You voted for this—didn’t you. You knew what you were doing so why do you want me to have sympathy for you now?” And Iris explains to the reader, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t think it was going to impact people like me. I didn’t want myself to be hurt.

To me, Iris represents where a lot of people are right now in this country. I’m not even talking about Mexican Americans or persons of color. There’s a sense of like—I’m not quite sure where I am anymore and not in an Alice in Wonderland [way]… all of a sudden everything is up for grabs, everything is negotiable in a way that’s startling. Iris one of those characters that doesn’t function well in those kinds of environments. Just tell me what I need to do—she’s even pleading with her sister—just tell me what I need to do to get back to the way things were. It takes her almost the whole novel to get that there is no going back to the way things were. She’s never gonna have the uncomplicated view from her house anymore. It’s like a bell, once it’s been rung you can’t unring the bell.

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