“Brilliant.” —The Washington Post * “Nuanced and compelling.” —The New York Times
From the PEN/Hemingway Award–winning author of The Madonnas of Echo Park, an engrossing dystopian novel set in a near-future America where mandatory identification wristbands turn second-generation immigrants into second-class citizens—“a well-imagined allegory of divisive racial politics” (Kirkus Reviews).
Iris Prince is starting over. After years of drifting apart, she and her husband are going through a surprisingly drama-free divorce. She’s moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, and has plans for gardening, coffee clubs, and spending more time with her nine-year-old daughter Melanie. It feels like her life is finally exactly what she wants it to be.
Then, one beautiful morning, she looks outside her kitchen window—and sees that a wall has appeared in her front yard overnight. Where did it come from? What does it mean? And why does it seem to keep growing?
Meanwhile, a Silicon Valley startup has launched a high-tech wrist wearable called “the Band.” Pitched as a convenient, eco-friendly tool to help track local utilities and replace driver’s licenses and IDs, the Band is available only to those who can prove parental citizenship.
Suddenly, Iris, a proud second-generation Mexican American, is now of “unverifiable origin,” unable to prove who she is, or where she, and her undocumented loved ones, belong. Amid a climate of fear and hate-fueled violence, Iris must confront how far she'll go to protect what matters to her most.
“Part social commentary and part thoughtful consideration of themes that include family, identity, transitions, perspectives, and hope” (Shelf Awareness), My Name Is Iris is an all-too-possible story that offers a brilliant and timely look at one woman’s journey to discover who she can’t—and can—be.
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Introduction My Name is Iris is a dystopian novel set in a near-future America where second-generation, Mexican-American Iris Prince is working hard to provide for her daughter and achieve the life she's always dreamed of. As the plot unfolds, she finds herself facing two obstacles: a mysterious wall that has appeared in her front yard and her lack of a mandatory identification wristband available only to those who can prove parental citizenship. As the nation further divides itself into those who have bands and those who don't, discrimination and hate quickly evolve into violence, and Iris finds herself making difficult decisions and taking risks to protect her daughter and herself.
Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. In chapter one, Iris Prince immediately lets us know she was born in the United States and she's the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Why do you think the author made Iris a second-generation immigrant rather than a first-generation immigrant? How does it make the elements of the plot more frightening?
2. While describing her new neighborhood in chapter two, Iris says, "I wanted to live where the land had no memory. I had earned the right to forget who I was, too." What kind of life is Iris building for herself before the wall appears in her yard? How does her new neighborhood compare to the neighborhood her parents live in?
3. In chapter three, the wall appears in Iris's yard overnight. Discuss the way Iris's understanding of the wall evolves from a physical object to a loaded concept.
4. Discuss Brenda's role in the novel. How does her death influence the way Iris moves through the world? What is unique about the moments when Brenda's ghost appears to Iris?
5. Initially, the wristbands are presented as a useful piece of technology meant to track local utilities and replace driver's licenses., however, they quickly become something much darker. Do you see the wristbands as an evolution of our current technology?
6. In chapter ten, Iris, Dolores, and Serena go out for dinner and are denied service because they do not have bands. Why was this scene so painful? How did each of the women deal with the situation?
7. In chapter twelve, a national frenzy erupts after the incident at the One-Shop. Discuss the ways in which extreme supporters of the band use it as a rallying point. Can you find similarities in any historic or current events?
8. Iris and Serena were not only raised very differently but also have disparate outlooks on life. Compare and contrast the two sisters. Are you different from your siblings?
9. In chapter sixteen we learn Alex is using a counterfeit band. Were you surprised by this revelation considering his involvement in extremist groups? How does it influence your perception of his character?
10. When Melanie is detained by the police, Iris must reckon with the decisions she's made and the lessons she's taught her daughter. How does this moment change her? Have there been any moments in your life that drastically altered the way you view the world?
11. In chapter one, Iris says, "I don't live for my daughter. I live to never let her doubt for a moment that she is loved and she can be fearless." How does this statement influence Iris's actions throughout the novel? By the end of the book, do you think Iris kept her promise?
12. What is the role of hope in a dystopian novel like My Name Is Iris?
Enhance Your Book Club 1. In chapter eight, Iris contemplates Esteban's Star Wars anecdote and wonders about "the “people over the years that have disappointed and denied him his own reality because he was the wrong kind of misfit, the wrong kind of outsider or, perhaps, as a darker-skinned Mexican, the wrong kind of person of color." Each of the Mexican American characters grapples with their latinidad, ; compare and contrast each individual's search for identity.
2. Share other dystopian fiction novels you've read and discuss the essential elements of the genre.
3. Spanish language is a big part of the novel. Not only are slang words used in Iris's first- person narration but entire conversations are held in Spanish. Make a list of the words you looked up and share them with the group!
A Conversation with Brando Skyhorse The events that transpire in the novel feel all-too-possible. What was your inspiration when you first sat down to write My Name Is Iris? In Summer 2016 I was struck how, at that time in America, the word “wall” had ceased to be a noun, and had become part of an advertising slogan, an irresistible chant that was selling not just an idea of security, but a particular idea of fairness. To be more secure, “we” will construct a wall, but this security that “we” seek will be paid for by another country – —a “them.”
I was struck by how seductive this image was – —a wall that will somehow solve not some, but all of our problems! – —and how this object was a thing that literally divides two sides into a “we” that was right, and a “them” that was wrong. It’s not a leap to see how this idea helped our country harden into and accept the fierce binary of social networks we have today.
The more I thought about that word, “wall,”, the more I wondered what would happen if someone who believed they were an essential part of our “we” learned (to borrow from Hemingway “gradually, then suddenly”) they were part of the “they” instead? This book is about one woman’s journey, from “we” to “they.”.
While you've written fiction before, the dystopian elements of the novel are a departure from your previous work. Were there any dystopian books that informed your writing process? Did you do any research for the book? Exit West by Mohshin Hamid was an excellent influence in learning how to layer fantastical elements atop realistic situations. I was also drawn to what it would be like to live in the shadow of a wall that grew out of the ground, so in December 2016, I visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, and toured the Peace Wall that divides Protestant and Catholic sections of the city. I also researched the history behind Oxford’s Cutteslowe Walls, built in England in 1934 to divide two housing estates of different classes. I focused my reading not just on walls but on the aftermath of walls – —what potentially remains in areas where demarcation and dehumanization are seen as essential to a community’s survival.
There is such a rich cast of characters throughout the story—many of them women. Which character was the easiest to embody? Which the most difficult? Much of my fiction finds its voice through women characters. I was raised by my mother and grandmother, so I gravitate to rendering day-to-day life through a woman’s eyes. I knew early on that my protagonist was Iris, and I also knew she would be both the easiest and most challenging character to write. “Easy” in that many of Iris’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions are sentiments I heard expressed by my own family growing up. “Hard” in that much of what Iris expresses is not what I think or feel, and I knew that her bluntness could make some readers uncomfortable. I’m writing about uncomfortable topics and ideas so it felt disingenuous to create a main character you would want to be friends with. What I wanted to do instead was create a character who was doing her best to survive in a fictional system and society that rewards fear and punitiveness. Would any of us fare any better★
What is at the core of Iris’s thoughts and feelings is a fervent belief in an identity that is based on what she is not, instead of what she is. It’s an identity based on fear and not hope. My place as Iris’s narrator is not to judge her but put her in situations where she learns the steep cost fear extracts and see if she can find a way out from fear to learn who she really is.
How did you balance the themes of fear and hope in the novel? Each of us are guided, I think, by our relationships to these two essential feelings of fear and hope, that which define our brief existence on this planet. Fear dictates to you a never- ending stream of facile solutions to complicated, human problems. What Iris learns in this novel is that while fear is easy, it comes with an enormous cost. Iris believes fear made her “success” as an American possible when in reality, Iris’s status was as secure only as far as those around her were willing to view her as part of their “we.” Once the band system was introduced, the fear around Iris’s life became streamlined, manageable, easy. Fear never really solves complicated problems – —it only shifts the burden of those problems around.
Hope is inspiring to us because it is so much harder to do. Hope requires hard conversations, painful self-reflection, and a constant nurturing. It’s hard work not to demonize others and to empathize with their pain and struggles. There really is no “we” and “they” – —there’s just “us,”, but as a species, humans succumb to fear much easier –more easily— and much faster – more quickly—than they embrace hope.
Iris’s journey is one from fear to hope. She must lose everything in order to understand what hope is and how transformative it can be. I don’t know what happens to her after this novel ends, but I know she has the courage to lead herself and her family with hope, and not fear.
Spanish is an important part of the novel. How is it key to understanding Iris and her family? I spent a lot of time constructing Spanish- language scenes throughout the book so that someone who doesn’t know Spanish can understand what is being communicated. It was also important, though, to render these conversations between these three generations of women in as honest a way as possible.
Iris feels that in order to be successful – —to realize the full potential of being “American” – —she must deemphasize her relationship to her language, to the point where she is cautious of when she speaks it and to whom. For her, speaking it in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong person, could lead to a series of judgments or assumptions, something that would be anathema to Iris, who simply wants to blend in. Much of this belief came from her mother, Dolores, who wanted Iris to put her head down, behave, and follow the “rules” she believed her daughter needed to succeed in America. Iris’s younger sister, Serena, has a different relationship with Spanish. To her, it’s an integral part of her identity, something that Iris feels will inhibit Serena’s ability to achieve success. Between them is Dolores, who is also English fluent but is uncomfortable using it because she assumes (wrongly) she is not “good” at speaking English and doesn’t want to run the risk of daily embarrassment. So while Dolores has been able to construct a daily life where she does not need to speak English, she also understands this decision has limited her life options in a way that her daughters’ lives are not.
While each character in Iris’s family is fluent in English, each of them has a different relationship with Spanish, and I wanted this to be another way for a reader to understand who these characters are and their place in this world.
Throughout the novel, we are introduced to many different Latine characters with different political and social ideologies. Why was it important to represent this? It’s crucial that representing marginalized communities means rejecting any monolithic depictions of identity. Each character in this novel, depending on their age and gender, has not only a different relationship to America and American-ness but to their own specific identity. This has been my experience in real life, and I wanted my fiction to represent this complicated reality, too.
Is there one idea or concept in the novel that you'd like readers to consider more deeply? I teach fiction every year to amazing undergraduates and graduate students at Indiana University Bloomington, and the cornerstone of that teaching is to imbue their creative thinking with empathy. That is, by learning as much as you can about who your characters are, what they want, and where they’re from, you can better depict where they want to go on the page.
I want every reader of this book to reconsider any group they may have branded a “they” and to weigh this question: what would I do if, tomorrow morning, I became a “they”? We are experiencing as a society a global deterioration in empathetic thinking, which I attribute to social media misinformation. Online, we are rewarded for prioritizing our ability to fear one another over our ability to learn more from – —and about – —each other.
Social media is the greatest fear-- and- misinformation - system ever created in human history – —but it doesn’t have to be. Can we learn a way to prioritize empathy over fear? I don’t know if social media is ready to create new ways for us to do this, but reading fiction is the best way I know to cultivate empathy. This is why I read, write, and publish books.
Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, won the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His memoir, Take This Man, was named one of Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Books of 2014 and one of NBC News’s 10 Best Latino Books of 2014. A recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center fellowship, Skyhorse teaches English and creative writing at Indiana University Bloomington.
“My Name Is Iris offers a sharp vision of how racism gets imbibed by its victims like a sweet poison. . . . Could there be a more incisive diagnosis of our era? . . . As Skyhorse’s clever satire accelerates into a truly terrifying thriller, the most insidious functions of racism appear illuminated in an eerie new light. . . . Brilliant.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Nuanced and compelling . . . 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, New York Times
“A chilling near-reality dystopian novel . . . My Name Is Iris is part social commentary and part thoughtful consideration of themes that include family, identity, transitions, perspectives, and hope. In addition to being an engrossing, discomfiting tale, this will make an excellent book club selection and fuel for tough conversations.” —Shelf Awareness
“Skyhorse’s satirical eye is sharp. . . . He cultivates an engrossing Kafkaesque atmosphere across the novel. A well-imagined allegory of divisive racial politics.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Any new book by Brando Skyhorse is a cause for celebration. My Name Is Iris is rich and full of heart and emotion. This is the work of a lifetime of experience, and you will not forget his characters.” —Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
PRAISE FOR OTHER BOOKS BY BRANDO SKYHORSE
* Take This Man: A Memoir *
“Hilarious and deeply moving . . . This is a wild read that will move you to tears and laughter simultaneously.” —NBC News
“A searingly funny and fearless book . . . written with such velocity and stark recollection that it feels as if the author is writing to save his life . . . Take This Man should be on the same shelf with Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, or maybe it should occupy an off-tilt, splintered shelf of its own. . . . [It] would make a terrific movie, if that weren’t an undignified thing to say about such a fine literary work. I say this because Skyhorse’s writing has such vivid immediacy, beautifully drawn scenes, and cameo appearances by all sorts of unusual, memorable characters. . . . A tour-de-force.” —The Washington Post
“Skyhorse has a fascinating story to tell, and he tells it with the skill and sway of a novelist. . . . It's a story that's almost too big to be true. Yet it reveals so much that's universal, about human longing and belonging, about the endless capacity we have to betray and rescue ourselves and the people we love.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Skyhorse's memoir is a West Coast version of Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors. . . . A funny, shocking, generous-hearted book.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Top this: Skyhorse grew up poor in a claustrophobic 1980s Echo Park home with a Chicana mother who pretended they were Native American, a bisexual grandmother who pretended she was straight, and five no-account stepfathers who each got out when the getting was no longer good. . . . Skyhorse really is a star, transcending a wack-ball family and a then-sketchy neighborhood to become a gifted writer. . . . Skyhorse's last page works so well, it gilds the rest of the book in a sweet, retroactive glow. Sometimes a book catches you in a weak moment, so I went back to read the scene a few weeks later, just to make sure. Knowing what was coming made it only better.” —Los Angeles Times
“Take This Man is earnest and searching, genuinely interested in exploring the complex arrangement that we call family.... [with] exquisite prose, but also a mature acknowledgment of the complex nature of memory, longing, love, and disappointment.” —The Los Angeles Review of Books
“A wickedly compelling account of a dysfunctional childhood. By turns funny and wrenching, the narrative is an unforgettable tour de force of memory, love, and imagination.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
* The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel *
Winner of the Pen/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction
“Skyhorse is at his best when exploring the changing world of Echo Park. . . . His careful attention to detail, to a rich past of a place that served as home to Mexican Americans already once displaced from Chavez Ravine, is thoroughly researched and executed—no easy feat while juggling multiple characters and timeframes. . . . The focus on Mexican American characters is admirable.” —Los Angeles Times
“To embrace a community, to capture its fabric, to syncopate its rhythms, lives, views, and experiences is a difficult feat. But Brando Skyhorse manages to do just that with his breathtaking and, at times, soul-churning novel. . . . Skyhorse [finds] breadth and diversity in Echo Park. . . . Stories zigzag through the book, introducing lives unique and full, bisecting one another at times, standing at solitary edges at others. . . . We are carried away by this intricately crafted tale. Taken together, the tales spin around the axis of a few streets yet splinter off into infinite dimensions.” —Chattanooga Times Free Press
“Rich and textured . . . As the intricate tale unwinds, we're offered glimpses of eight residents, whose ordinary, working-class lives intersect under often extraordinary circumstances. . . . Skyhorse propels the reader through the novel at a breakneck pace. And in each section, readers are rewarded with a deeper layer, and a new connection, that enriches the plot. . . . Skyhorse uses elegant prose and vivid storytelling to tackle questions surrounding culture, belonging, and identity that haunt every immigrant community.” —Christian Science Monitor