Review

In the space of dreams: Wendy Ortiz's 'Bruja' is vivid and dark

If you chart the history of dream writing, you get a map of ideas about fate and individual agency through the ages.

With a few notable exceptions, the ancients and medieval Europeans saw dreams as divine messages; spaces in which you might learn about the destiny assigned to you. In Native American cultures too, dreams have been a means of transcending the individual and connecting with the spiritual world.

In Renaissance Europe, as humanism and individualism flourished, people began to put themselves, rather than spiritual forces, at the center of their journeys on Earth. Dreams, in turn, were seen as bound in the individual. Think of Macbeth: his hallucinations, the “terrible dreams” he reports, all the play’s tortured sleep. Dreams now played out waking preoccupations, rather than otherworldly agendas.

Dream writing lost and gained popularity a few more times, and then came the real explosion with Freud. In the era of psychoanalysis, dreams were suddenly so much more than illustrations of waking preoccupations. They showed people things about themselves; things they were unable to access while awake.

The third book from Los Angeles writer Wendy Ortiz extends this inward trajectory of dream writing to its furthest point: “Bruja” goes so far inward that the waking world doesn’t feature at all. The book collects Ortiz’s dreams over a period of four years, in spare and at times mesmerizing prose. It’s published as a “dreamoir,” which Ortiz defines as: “A literary adventure through the boundaries of memoir, where the self is viewed from a position anchored into the deepest recesses of the mind.” That spatial relationship is crucial: We’re taken to crouch in the undergrowth of Ortiz’s subconscious, catching glimpses of a self projected in shifting constellations.

Though “Bruja” is not a traditionally plotted literary work, it contains themes and symbols — we are, after all, dwelling in a person’s subconscious. Maternal conflict, pregnancy and indecision over relationships and living arrangements recur. As do bags (the packing and unpacking of them); water, sometimes containing sharks and dolphins; and cats. “Bruja” stirs the instinct to draw these threads together; for the curious, Ortiz has revealed that the dreams date to her late 20s, a period when she was becoming an adult, settling on her chosen life.

“I wore a red negligee and had an invisible sheet that functioned as a magic carpet,” begins one pregnancy dream. “If in flight I flapped it just once, I went higher and higher in the sky. Eventually I landed on a brick wall behind a liquor store. A bunch of men were standing around outside of an old truck, leering at me.”

The book’s index invites more psychoanalytic sleuthing too (sample: mother, 35 entries; Jerry Seinfeld, one; bomb, five). The dreams tantalize, and in this way mirror the most pervasive form of life writing the world has ever seen: social media — another medium in which Ortiz is adept.

But the point of the book is not simply to fill in what’s been left out: It is a literary work in its own right. In structure and execution, “Bruja” bears similarities to another post-Freudian dream collection: Georges Perec’s “La Boutique Obscure,” first published in French in 1973 (and in English under the same title in 2013 — a translation I edited). Perec lived for the creative opportunities that arise from constraint — this is the author who famously wrote a novel without using the letter “e” — and he approached dream writing as a creative exercise in which language itself was the constraint. “La Boutique Obscure” is an attempt to convey in words that brilliant, underwater multiplicity and confusing certainty of dreams. There is an element of this in Ortiz’s book too. The prose’s vivid lightness holds us in what is, even as our minds stray into what it might mean.

Perec had complicated feelings about his dream diary; mostly, he was leery of its openness. As a memoirist whose work is so probing that it sometimes feels like a challenge to readers, Ortiz approaches the form from a different angle. “Bruja” is a game of expression, but it’s a memoir too, and not by accident.

An interesting thing about the inward trajectory of ideas about dreams is that it seemed at first to bring a greater sense of individual agency — as, for instance, for the heroes of Renaissance literature. Since Freud, though, we’ve lost that sense of agency. The forces in these dreams originate within Ortiz, but the grip they have on her is every bit as powerful as an ancient goddess’ grip on her believers. That’s the way the subconscious works — and why one’s own subconscious can be such a frightening thing.

Ortiz celebrates this dark side of the human mind, nowhere more so than in “Bruja.” She told Electric Literature that the book’s title was inspired by her own witchy qualities: “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.” It’s testament to Ortiz’s courage as a memoirist that she’s willing to live for a while on this submarine plane, among the elements that dictate her fate — and to invite her readers along for the show.

Robins is a writer and translator who lives in Los Angeles.

Bruja

Wendy Ortiz

Civil Coping Mechanisms: 242 pp., $15.95 paper

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