Survival as Resistance: An interview with Dani Burlison

2018 Portland Review contributor Dani Burlison is a raging feminist, a hip mama, a woo-woo witch, and a self-proclaimed smart ass. Portland Review editorial assistant, Karleigh Frisbie, spoke with her about her forthcoming book, an anthology of her vital zine, Lady Parts.

Karleigh Frisbie: Dani, can you can you tell us a little bit about Lady Parts?

Dani Burlison: I had a hysterectomy in the fall of 2015. As my surgery date was nearing, I started writing about this experience of having most of my reproductive system removed and decided I wanted to do a zine based on having lady parts.

The first issue is mainly about the physical aspects of being a woman—and that includes transgender women. I have a great interview in there with a trans friend of mine about her whole process of coming out as trans in the small community she grew up in. There’s articles about hormones, there’s personal essays about abortion, reproductive rights—things like that.

The second Lady Parts focuses more on women and anger. I was working on that issue as the 2016 election was approaching. I realized that every woman I was talking to during that time had a lot of anger coming up, so I decided to look at how we deal with other peoples’ anger, how we deal with our own anger.

KF: Both Lady Parts volumes are so vital and timely, with regard to everything going on both politically and culturally. These zines represent intersectionality—feminist guidebooks for cis-women, trans women, gender nonconforming folks, people of color that offer articles, essays, interviews, recipes, self-care tips, magic…. Can you talk to me about what feminism is to you?

DB: I was talking to one of my kids about this recently: the difference between Feminism with a capital F and intersectional feminism. Honestly, I see feminism as the big umbrella term, as being largely white and upper-middle class. I’ve never really felt like that was very representational of me, someone who grew up very, very poor in a huge, dysfunctional family. So, the idea of making a place for myself in the men’s world never really occurred to me because I never connected to that idea of feminism.

I feel like upper-middle class, white, female-identifying feminists already have a really loud voice, already have a spot at the table. For that reason, it’s important for me to focus on marginalized people, to make sure everyone is represented. Fortunately, and largely because of the internet, people are becoming more aware of white privilege and educated about the different issues around race. Even though Lady Parts is just this little zine and not everybody has read it, I hope to provide a space for other voices, because they’re just as important, if not more so, than the voices that are already out there.

KF: So how do you go about choosing these voices? How do you find your interviewees and contributors?

DB: Because of my background with doing activism for 25 years or so, and being involved in the witch community, I tend to have more radical political leanings. For the zine, I look at people I know personally or have worked with before on different projects. I choose writers that I really respect, that have some pretty awesome ideas about being a woman in the world.

I think everyone in the zine are people that I had a prior connection with, like Ariel Gore. I wrote for Hip Mama (Gore’s magazine) years ago and she and I have been on book tours together. She’s fucking awesome. I interviewed Michelle Gonzalez, somebody that I met through doing readings years ago, and just love her. She has a really great essay about anger, that came out around the time that Trump’s infamous “pussy grabbing” incident was brought to light.

I feel like the stronger we can be as women and as allies—the better we take care of ourselves—the stronger we’re going to be. And THAT is an act of resistance. Our fucking survival is an act of resistance.

KF: I was very intrigued by something you said in Lady Parts: that you “began approaching self-care as an act of resistance against the patriarchy.” That’s such an interesting, compelling statement, particularly how you go on to say that the term “self care” has a lot of charge around it: we think of overindulgence and privilege. Can you talk a little more about this?

DB: I bring that up because a lot of people are like, “Oh, self-care—it’s like, spa day.” This over-indulgence, where we’re going to, oh, I don’t know…

KF: Mani-Pedi?

DB: Yeah, blow a ton of money having other people pamper our bodies, which, if I had a ton of money, I would do that all of the time. But it doesn’t have to mean that. I think of Audre Lorde’s thoughts about self-care: if we’re actively working in this social justice realm and trying to make space for everyone, especially the marginalized people in our community, we have to take care of ourselves, because if we don’t—and I know from experiencing complete burnout from being a social worker 10 years ago—if we don’t take care of ourselves, we are no good. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anyone else; we can’t make the changes that we want to make.

If you look historically at the winners of wars or colonization—or whatever you want to look at—the success of those colonizers and the triumphs of those soldiers really depended on wearing the opposition down. Wearing people fucking down. So, I feel like the stronger we can be as women and as allies—the better we take care of ourselves—the stronger we’re going to be. And THAT is an act of resistance. Our fucking survival is an act of resistance. Especially as woman, especially right now, with all the shit that’s going on with men terrorizing women and all these white dudes with their guns everywhere. We have to take care of ourselves. I could rant about this forever.

KF: I love it. And you’ll get to rant more! You have the Lady Parts anthology coming out through PM Press soon, right?

DB: About a year and a half. Publication will be the fall of 2019.

KF: Will you be including parts of, no pun intended, Lady Parts one and two, in this anthology, or will it be all new material?

DB: All the hands and feet! Yes, it will be a combination of new stuff that hasn’t been published anywhere, some stuff from Lady Parts, and a few pieces that have been published in different places.

It’s around that same theme of what it’s like to be a woman in this world; what it’s like to carry anger, express ourselves and our sexuality, and all of the things that come with a woman’s body—whatever that body looks like—in this world.

KF: Can you give a hint as to what we can expect?

DB: There’s going to be an amazing essay by Lidia Yuknavitch, previously unpublished, included in it. I’m definitely curating it: I’m not really putting out a call for submissions because I’m a control freak. I have this very particular idea of what I want the book to look like.

KF: Understandably. I’m excited to see the final product. So, this will be your second book. I’m probably saying this wrong but is it Dendrophilia?

DB: Yes, Dendrophilia. It’s so weird. Dendrophilia is a word used to describe having sex with a tree. It’s a fetish of fucking trees, basically.

KF: Who knew that was a thing?

DB: I’ve not had sex with a tree, but that was the name of the humor column I did for McSweeney’s for a year back in 2011, 2012. It was mostly humorous stuff. I live in Sonoma County. It’s very “woo woo” here—and I totally dabble in “woo woo.” I’ve done all of the New Age things, so I’m not making fun of the subculture, I’m making fun of myself and just taking an honest look at what it’s like to be a part of it, what it’s like to live in this area and be a part of that whole scene.

The column ran at McSweeney’s, and the book contains most of the column pieces, plus a few  other pieces that were published elsewhere but that fit in—like a cuddle party story and a couple other weird things that I experimented with.

KF: I love that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but you also show a respect and a strong interest in the subject matter; like you said, you aren’t making fun of it. A lot of new age-y material that I have read before tended to take itself too seriously, and I guess you could say my reaction was a little eye-rolly. Your essays don’t read like this at all.

DB: Yeah, totally. But also, there are things that I do take seriously, I’m just more private about that. I’m not one of those people that is so self-righteous just because I’m a yoga teacher or an herbalist. There’s a couple pieces in the book and in the column that are a little more serious, about having spent almost three years celibate, and there’s an essay in there that I wrote around the end of the first year of my celibacy and why I ended up being celibate, and it’s not a sunny, happy story.

KF: Did you have a personal interest in and familiarity with Northern California counterculture, with New Age stuff, before you started writing the column? Or was it your research that got you into it?

DB: I have my Master’s degree in Consciousness Healing and Ecology from the New College of California, so, yeah, if that answers anything. I’ve kind of lived in this weird in-between, where I very much identify with anarchist’s politics and direct action and social justice and “rawr,” but then there’s this other part of me that’s very spiritual. I definitely, before Dendrophilia, had tried all kinds of new age things and had been involved with a lot of weird shit.

In Lady Parts there are some spells and rituals and recipes, and just this self-identifying-witch talk.

KF: How did you become a witch?

DB: I was kind of a closeted witch, because of what I was just talking about: being involved with a lot of social justice stuff, where everybody was an atheist. And not only was everyone an atheist, but everyone was very self-righteous about being an atheist. But then, oddly, some people dabbled in meditation.

I started going to public winter solstice rituals and things like that in the 90s, in Sonoma County, and didn’t really tell anyone because I thought everyone would make fun of me. To all the skaters and punks that I was friends with, it wasn’t very cool. In the last several years, I started taking classes, started going to witch camp, and I started being more public about it, because I don’t fucking care what people think anymore.

I had moved to Sonoma County in the 90s to go to herb school and ended up having kids instead. I have a pieced-together herbal education; I’m kind-of a self-taught herbalist—not a clinical herbalist by any means, but it’s a really big part of my life too.

Dani Burlison

KF: What are your goals with Lady Parts, with Dendrophilia, with your writing as a whole?

DB: I can’t iterate enough how important it is to represent all voices. That goes for being queer, being a person of color, being a person in poverty. I feel like women in poverty are so overlooked, and it’s something that really bothers me. I would love to just have an entire project dedicated to this, another Lady Parts zine that focuses on what it’s like to be a woman growing up or raising kids or living in poverty—and whatever that looks like for different women in different places, because I don’t feel like enough people talk about it.

Poor women that are raising kids are so fucking demonized, right? They’re single and living in poverty because the other parent is absent. Usually, not always, but usually that other parent is a man who’s not there taking responsibility for their kid. They’re off doing whatever they’re doing. But the mothers are the ones that are looked down on! They’re the ones that are shamed! Oh my god. I remember using food stamps when my kids were little and people just treating me like garbage. And then my partner, when he was still alive, would be at the park alone with the kids and people would come up to him—and he was a tattooed, shaved-head, punk guy—and praise him for spending time with his kids.

Meanwhile, if I had the kids by myself, and I’m using the food stamps, people are telling me I’m too young to have kids or shaming me for being poor. It’s such a shitty, bullshit double standard. I just wish there was more space in the feminist world for more attention paid and more support given to women in poverty, and women with disabilities too.

KF: I’m sensing that there is going to have to be a Lady Parts 3.


Karleigh Frisbie is an MFA candidate at Portland State University, where she also teaches creative nonfiction writing. She is a member of the editorial team at Portland Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nailed, Lana Turner, Zaum, and elsewhere.

Dani Burlison
 is the author of Dendrophilia and Other Social Taboos: True Stories, a collection of essays which first appeared in her McSweeney’s Internet Tendency column of the same name, and the Lady Parts series (available at Pioneers Press). She has been a staff writer at a Bay Area alt-weekly, a book reviewer for Los Angeles Review and a regular contributor at Chicago Tribune, KQED Arts, The Rumpus and Made Local Magazine. Her writing can also be found at WIRED, Vice, Utne, Ploughshares, Hip Mama Magazine, Rad Dad, Spirituality & Health Magazine, Shareable, Tahoma Literary Review, Prick of the Spindle and more. She lives, teaches and writes in Santa Rosa, California.