Sometimes I finish a book and feel sorry for whichever volume I will be starting next because the odds of it matching the brilliance of its predecessor are slim. That’s how I felt after finishing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Albina and the Dog-Men. Luckily, what I started devouring a few hours later was Wendy C. Ortiz’s Bruja, which is packed with surreal imagery, emotional moments, and recollections that walk a fine, blurry, every-shifting line between memory and imagination. Jodorowsky’s pshycomagic is absolutely wonderful and unique, and so is Ortiz’s “dreamoir,” which offers some of the same elements while being its own, unique animal and a special addition to contemporary literature.
Bruja is a memoir in the sense that there are experiences (re)lived, people remembered, relationships (de)constructed and exposed, and events recounted, but it’s also a “dreamoir” packed with shark attacks, explosions, fear of assassination, bizarre hybrid creatures, haunted houses, and photographs that turn into short films. What Ortiz has done is submerge herself in the space between memory and dream and allowed the fragments of both things to merge into a form of storytelling that, much like surreal/outré fiction, doesn’t operate under any given set of rules. The result is a text that brings to mind its most obvious elements, memory and dreams, but that is also full of echoes of magical realism and even poetry:
The hide-a-bed was clearly decades old, but the blankets on it felt warm and satisfying. Curt and I lied underneath the covers in the garage at my mother’s house. The garage had always been a scary place for me: it was where my father spent weekend hours fixing things, tools laid out on dirty shelves; where I watched my father box a punching bag, his muscles working; where I gathered handfuls of pellets to feed the koi; where a pin-up calendar lived that my eyes always wanted to fix on, but which I resolutely ignored during my forays into this male place.
The best thing about Bruja is that it keeps the reader guessing while also offering a generous glimpse into Ortiz’s life. Some passages read like a journal and feel honest and real, full of that strength that comes from confessional/cathartic writing. However, there are also passages and complete chapters that are entirely surreal or so steeped in symbolism that they feel like they belong in a different book:
Someone with the initials DP rained biochemical weapons down on us. The palm trees were bombarded. We wilted in the intense heat of the explosions.
One of the biggest problems with memoirs is that without elements like unbelievable adventures/drama or emotional/geographical proximity, they mostly fall flat. With this “dreamoir,” none of that is a problem because Ortiz’s writing is allowed to draw from personal, factual experiences as well as events that have been filtered, and thus changed, through memory and even dreams. This adds layers of significance to the text and turns simple phrases into floating signifiers that invite deconstruction both within the context of the author’s life and for what the visions and situations presented may mean for the reader:
At my mother’s house, monstrous disembodied hands reached through walls. I repeated the 23rd Psalm over and over.
Nothing stopped the scaly claws that reached into the bathroom, grabbing at me and the white cat.
Bruja is a personal history and a travel journal, a book of emotional heft and bizarre incantations, a revelatory experiment and a literary scar produced by life. Ortiz favors short chapters and doesn’t mind letting readers into her mind and life, and the result of that is a book that reinvents what a memoir can be while retaining all the things it is supposed to accomplish as a shared text. This is a smart, strange, wonderfully expressive combination of fact and everything that hovers in the periphery of fact.
by Wendy C. Ortiz
Civil Coping Mechanisms; 242 p.