Bruja, just published by CCM on October 31, is Wendy C. Ortiz’s third book. It comes on the heels of Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015), which followed her debut memoir, Excavation (Future Tense Books, 2014). Ortiz’s first books balk at the constraints of their genre. Both are memoirs, but Wendy’s sultry, meditative prose pushes out beyond the edges of what’s comfortable. Ortiz tackles difficult topics with unflinching honesty, managing at once to show her vulnerability on the page while also maintaining an air of cool irreverence.
Bruja follows suit. Ortiz exhibits a mastery of language, and is both mysterious and compelling. Bruja is a journey—its tempo is so ignited I could barely put it down. What is different about Bruja, though, is how it is defined. Bruja is a “dreamoir”—a story told in dreams. Instead of conforming to the tenets of the memoir, Ortiz has broken from the genre further still, and not in the way you might think.
Ortiz tells her story through the language of dreams. Her story cannot be pigeonholed into our traditional ideas of fiction or nonfiction, and although Bruja operates like a poem, it isn’t that either, which is how Ortiz came up with the term “dreamoir,” and how her publisher, Michael J. Seidlinger, came to write its definition. Ortiz didn’t set out to invent her own genre; it just manifested that way.
The Rumpus: What was the impetus for Bruja, and how was the term, and definition for, “dreamoir” conceived?
Wendy C. Ortiz: Bruja began much as Hollywood Notebook did, as a blog I had many years ago (in fact at the same time as Hollywood Notebook). Just like with Hollywood Notebook, I captured all the text before the website came down, with the intention of doing something with it down the road.
In my first email to Michael J. Seidlinger, after he asked me if I had anything for him to look at, I told him I had this thing that I think of as a dreamoir, and why I was calling it this. He immediately caught the meaning and ultimately he wrote the definition of dreamoir that appears in the book.
I’m fascinated by the way Bruja forces the reader to piece together the story through symbols and narrative threads as opposed to a linear story arc. As a reader the dream format compelled me to think more deeply about the journey of the narrator—to engage in the process of discovery in a much more visceral way than I might with a traditional memoir. In a way, the omission, made the narrative more engaging. Was this something you had to think through?
Ortiz: In the original writing of it online, I never thought this through—the website was a receptacle for dreams. In editing it, I had to think through which dreams had the most to “tell,” which forced me into omitting dreams that didn’t have much of a thread (or threads that might be too obscure to follow). I also omitted dreams that felt like they told too much. It felt like a very careful removal of organs from a body, to see if the body might still function without one dream thread or another.
Rumpus: You were recently listed on Bustle by JoAnna Novak as one of “9 Women Writers who are Breaking New Nonfiction Territory,” which includes, among others, Esmé Weijun Wang, who just won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize for her forthcoming The Collected Schizophrenias, Eula Biss who won a National Book Critic Circle award for her 2010 book Notes from No Man’s Land, and the venerable Roxane Gay. Excavation, your debut memoir, and Hollywood Notebook, have both been met with critical success. Does it feel with Bruja that you’ve reached a new level? Does Bruja break new ground in the world of nonfiction?
Ortiz: Bruja definitely feels like new territory to me and/but it’s territory I don’t feel at all certain about. This book is actually a bit frightening to me because, in essence, it could be categorized as fiction, to some—though that’s not how I think of it. I’d like to imagine that “dreamoir” becomes a subgenre of nonfiction, maybe ultimately because I’d love to read many more dreamoirs by other writers—poets and memoirists especially.
Rumpus: I want to dig into the term “dreamoir” a little bit. In the Summer 2016 Writer’s Chronicle article “Magic and the Intellect” four writers were asked to “consider the stakes of magic in literature today.” Lucy Corin wrote, “I am interested stories not because they contain or do not contain depictions of ‘magic,’ I am interested in stories that perform magic.” I felt keenly that Bruja, had an intentional spell-like—almost a magical realism—quality. Certainly, the gorgeous cover art by the artist Wendy Ortiz, and the title itself is evocative of a female archetype—a woman with magical powers. Were you thinking about this when you composed Bruja?
Ortiz: I was thinking of it the same way I think of brujería everyday without calling it that, necessarily. To me, magic is everywhere. Synchronicities fall under the “magic” heading to me. I pay attention as much as I can. I try to surround myself with other women with magical powers and a lot falls under the heading “magical powers.” To me, a bruja is able to live on and in different planes at different times and sometimes simultaneously—this is what I thought of most as I edited the text of the book—that this was my life on another plane while living on the one most people call “reality.”
On the plain with not a single tree to ground us, we stood together crying and wringing our hands. I recited the 23rd Psalm, as my grandmother had taught me as a child. I recite over and over and over, tripping over some of the words, until she began to recite with me. We shouted it.
Another puncture wound of black clouds formed and began heading towards us.
I love that here is a thread of a story picked up from Excavation, with the staunchly religious grandmother who seems to bring our narrator great comfort and simultaneously great terror.
There is an overwhelming theme in Bruja of something looming—something terrible about to happen. Storms are rolling in, people are drowning, bombs are exploding. The narrator is packing and repacking her backs and trying to flee. She never seems sure about how to rescue herself or the people she loves, she just knows she needs to. How do your books connect through this theme? Are these themes of some dark force, or of needing to escape or flee, a reflection of themes in your life as a writer?
Ortiz: The women in my family—my grandmother and my mother—have been both sources of comfort and terror. Protection was not always available.
At the time of the writing of Bruja, I was also undergoing an internal shift, one that I think of as becoming an actual adult, after the age of twenty-eight. Overwhelm, panic, and wanting to flee were states of being in my everyday life as I tried to figure out life on my own, in the city I had grown up in, after an entire life made in Olympia, Washington for the eight years previous. I see a few themes across the three books—more along the lines of secrets, substance use, and issues with monogamy.
I also imagine there’s an undercurrent of the impact of early religious teachings and my break from what I was taught and expected to perform if I wanted to be considered normal in my family of origin.
Rumpus: I found the narrator’s relationship with her mother particularly moving. This mother is also always looming. On the one hand, she seems motherly—there is a fear she might walk in at any moment and disrupt the status quo, or not understand what is happening—she seems, almost, an authority figure. On the other, this mother is menacing and the narrator conveys a sense of deep conflict towards her. Their relationship is one of complexity, but it culminates when the narrator dreams she is punching her mother who is roaring drunk and keeps getting back up for more. The narrator continues to beat her but her mother continues to get back up. Can you talk about this relationship and why it’s important to the narrative of Bruja?
Ortiz: My relationship with my mother has always felt like the most complicated relationship of my life. I know I have a lot more writing to do on this. It’s important to the narrative of Bruja because it encapsulates so many of my conflicted feelings about my mother and our relationship, and also captures where our relationship was at the time of the writing—my mother, still deep in her alcoholism, and my growing insistence that we could not be in relationship if she remained a practicing alcoholic.
Rumpus: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the cats. All throughout the book, the narrator is tripping over cats, trying, literally, to herd cats, to rescue cats, and even watching cats give birth. Thus, towards the very end of the book it feels incredibly gratifying—if not a little tongue-in-cheek—when you write:
In the midst of his crying and stammering, I asked him if he thought we should try to leave.
“No,” he said, his voice quavering. “We can’t because of the cats.”
I saw his point.
You provide an index for Bruja. What made you decide on writing an index? How do you see its function? What’s with all the cats?
Ortiz: I love indices! They are poetry in and of themselves, depending on the book. I also thought it would be interesting to lay out the recurrence of words—particularly states of being, animals, places—and see how they stacked up against each other. It’s like a quick map of my psyche at that time.
Oh, cats. Well, I feel like a cat? I wish to be a cat. I like to imagine I was a cat in a past life. The affinity is easy and ongoing, my whole life. Cats also connote sexuality in standard dream dictionaries, so there’s that as well.
Rumpus: Bruja reminded me in some ways of a book-length poem or a poetry collection. The very last page is where we find a kind of catharsis for both narrator and reader when the narrator experiences a lucid dream. As if—similar to Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Towards God—the narrator has been putting in the work to find, not God, so much as consciousness, which operates, in this instance, on more than one level. I thought that the narrative leading up to the final page really earned its ending. How did this ending come into being?
Ortiz: I’m thrilled that this is what you took from the ending. I had not had an ending in mind. I kept asking myself what it could be. I stayed open. And eventually, when that particular dream came, and I shared it with a couple of people, both were like, That’s the ending. You got it. And I agreed. I had asked, it had arrived, and it felt natural and fitting, and opens me up to something new to follow.