Monday was the official release of Wendy C. Ortiz’s Bruja. The book, which some reviewers are calling the first of its kind, is part memoir, part dream journal—a narrative crafted from her subconscious. The author has pieced together nearly three years’ worth of dreams in chronological order, providing tidy snapshots of what plagues her.
I read an advanced reader’s copy of Bruja during the perfect time: at the end of October, approaching Halloween and the sacred holiday known as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This is the time of year when many Latinos honor their loved ones who have passed, by building them altars and giving them offerings.
The season represents a time of remembrance and reflection, both of which are major themes in Ortiz’s book compiled of dreams.
Ortiz recently said that in Bruja, she is describing the world she lived in while she was asleep, a world that felt “just as real, just as emotional, and vibrant and frightening” as the world she lives in during the day. If you’ve read Ortiz’s work—memoirs including Excavation and Hollywood Notebook—you can piece together dreams chronicled in Bruja with events and people in the writer’s real, waking life. And this is the magic of Ortiz’s latest book: It forces us to re-examine the amount of seriousness we’re willing to give to our dreams and to re-evaluate their meaning.
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Ortiz opens Bruja with a definition of the genre she has created. A dreamnoir, as her new book is described, is “a narrative derived from the most malleable and revelatory details of one’s dreams, catalogued in bold detail. A literary adventure through the boundaries of memoir, where the self is viewed from a position anchored into the deepest recesses of the mind,” she writes.
The text that would become Bruja was originally written for Ortiz’s website as a way to chronicle her dreams, though she never revealed to her readers that what they were reading were snippets of her subconscious—and bizarre moments abound. A man escapes a vicious shark attack with only minor wounds. John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and their children are seen driving in a car in Joshua Tree National Park, decades after Lennon’s death. But what does it all mean?
In Latino culture, great importance is ascribed to dreams. Dreams can be omens; they can provide answers to problems or give you life direction. I’ve always said that Latinas are witchy, and what we’re seeing more and more is that young Latinas are embracing their inner bruja—the Spanish word for “witch.” In a recent interview about her book, Ortiz, a queer Latina, shared that bruja is just another identity she inhabits. “My grandmother and my mother are women who I describe as witches, with their particular abilities and insights, though they would never describe themselves as such. For much of my life it’s felt like a given that I have some sort of vibe that others have described as ‘witchy,’ and my partner and I see this in our daughter as well,” Ortiz told Electric Literature.
“A bruja, to me, is one who can, among other things, live on other planes than just the one we think we know and refer to as reality.”
This “witchyness” Ortiz describes is something with which I deeply identify. My family tells me my great-grandfather was a curandero—Spanish for a healer of sorts—and my own father has bad dreams and out-of-the-blue sinking feelings that something unpleasant is going to happen. And then something bad happens.
As hard as it is for those who do not believe in such things to understand, I experience this too. For me, it takes shape in gut feelings, the understanding that I know something there is no way for me to know. There is no source I can point to. I just know.
My mother was never diagnosed with an illness. But near her death, she simply seemed off-kilter to me, different in an almost imperceptible yet alarming way. In the weeks preceding her death, I had a vivid dream that she died. The day before she died from an undiagnosed illness, I frantically called my two brothers, with whom I had no real relationship, and tried to explain that I needed their help convincing my mom to take her health more seriously, because I had a feeling. Neither of them understood the urgency I felt.
Now, dreams are the only way I get to speak to my mom and, as Ortiz described it, this dream world in which my mother is still alive feels just as real as reality.
It is during Día de los Muertos, nearing her birthday on November 15, that I dream the most about my mother. I believe that how we honor our loved ones during this sacred holiday, by celebrating their lives rather than mourning our loss, can influence our dreams. During other times of the year, the dreams about my mother are sad: In them, I know she is dying and I’m trying to convince her to care for herself. The other night, shortly after blowing out the candles on the altar I make for her, I had a dream that my mom and I were drinking coffee and planning our Thanksgiving menu, something we loved to do when she was living. But now we have dreams.
While reading Bruja, I enjoyed trying to decide if the dreams chronicled correlated with actual events or provided any insight into the author’s real world. In one dream, for example, Ortiz describes wearing a white, silk outfit while giving birth to a daughter. Was this Ortiz’s brain letting her know that one day, she’d give birth to her “witchy,” real-life daughter? We’ll never know.
Just like in our dreams, in Bruja, fact and fiction collide in spectacular and uncomfortable ways and so much of the fun and heartache is trying to untangle it and find meaning. Needless to say, Ortiz’s book resonated with me.