- Jessamyn Harris
PLACE & TIME Dani Burlison's books are inspired by her own experiences.
A decade ago I took a writing workshop in the back of an herbal store in Occidental. Sheltered from the foggy morning inside the cozy, candlelit space, about eight of us gathered around a Dia de los Muertos altar, with our pens and notebooks and steaming cups of tea.
I'd recently met the workshop leader, Dani Burlison, but had no idea what to expect as she passed around a large envelope and instructed us to randomly choose a photo from inside. Our prompt was to write a letter inspired by what we saw, and when I finished reading mine aloud—an apology to a mother and her kids from a guy who wanted to do better—Dani looked awestruck.
"You just conjured my ex-boyfriend Dave," she said, eyes going wide, "who died two years ago."
Indeed, I'd referenced purple irises (the very flowers he'd brought her), helping the kids with homework and disappearing on them because of a crippling heroin addiction (check, check). Then I showed her the photo I'd chosen—of Dani and her two kids dressed in black and looking solemn outside of the Phoenix Theater—which, I'd come to find out, she had taken at Dave's memorial service after the heroin did him in. It was admittedly eerie, and as we burned sage and placed our photos on the altar, I realized that to take a workshop with Dani is to enter a sacred realm where boundaries blur, and anything might happen.
The same can be said of reading her first book of fiction, Some Places Worth Leaving (Tolsun Books, February 2020), a collection of 13 raw, visceral stories loosely based on her own life that take you places you didn't even know you wanted or needed to go.
"Everything in these stories has happened to some girl or woman, somewhere," Dani tells me over tacos in her Roseland neighborhood on a chilly Monday afternoon.
The happenings explore the emotional wreckage of assault, abuse and trauma wrought by men—some of them straight-up awful, others just clueless and broken—except that in these stories, many of them don't get away with it. In fact, one San Francisco writer dubbed this "revenge fiction" in honor of the ways justice gets meted out.
"I feel the satisfaction of taking down the predators and the patriarchy, even if it's just one story at a time," Dani says. "I was so tired of the neutrality, of people looking the other way when men behaved badly. I'm spinning my own spells of justice."
After an editor offered her a deal based on a couple of her stories, she got to work, spending every evening for five months on her couch with her computer, cat and cup of tea to make this book a reality. She knew she might not get another opportunity like this, so she wrote through her impostor syndrome, through the voice that doubted if she could make the leap from nonfiction to fiction.
"The world wouldn't have cared if I didn't get these stories written," she tells me. "But I would have."
In one of my favorites, "Shark Week," the narrator heads out to the coast with her "unkind lover" who plans to teach her to surf. But once there, he insists on watching disaster footage and leaves scratches on her neck while she thinks about all the women and girls who go missing: "I thought, too, about ... the ways in which we are taken from ourselves. The countless ways women get destroyed or misplaced or lost." By the end of the story, which does involve a circling fin, the narrator has chosen herself, powerfully illuminating "the ways we manage to escape."
It's true—as much as her characters suffer, they also draw strength from loving mothers and grandmothers and friends, they have attuned themselves to the rhythms of nature and ritual, and instead of toppling under the weight of despair, they ultimately move on. As author Dana Johnson comments, Dani "pulls off something miraculous: stories that are devastating and inspiring, stories that are righteous calls for vigilance, tenderness—and fury." There's a brutal beauty, a pulsing tension inside her lovely, grounded prose, reminiscent of both Gillian Flynn and the searing story "Heat" by Joyce Carol Oates.
Turns out, fictionalizing her life was liberating. Not only could she detach from the dark subject matter—trigger warnings abound—she could flip the narrative. This is exactly the premise of "It's a Very Scary Time for Young Men in America," in which the well-meaning protagonist, Brooke, who's writing her dissertation about "female privilege and the plight of oppressed men" is forced to confront men's anger about not being taken as seriously as women, constantly being judged for how they dress and having to teach their sons how not to get preyed upon by girls. The ending involves witchcraft, absinthe and Bloody Mary—a plot full of daring heat, like standing a little too close to a raging bonfire.
The Magic of Rebirth
Growing up government-cheese poor in rural Red Bluff (30 miles south of Redding) as the seventh of nine kids, Dani found solace in the orchards, creeks and fields surrounding her house. She fondly remembers her mother's veggie garden and the fresh-caught fish her dad brought home for dinner. But after her parents split up and her abusive stepfather moved in, the natural world became even more a means of survival.
"I remember sitting out in the front yard on weekend mornings looking at my mom's beautiful flowers along the fence—daffodils, blue bonnets, lilacs, black-eyed Susans," Dani says, surprising us both as tears start spilling down her cheeks. She loved the simple pleasure they brought her, which she now realizes was anything but simple. "Those flowers probably saved my life. There was something so vital about them, about the magic of thriving in nothing but dirt, the magic of rebirth."
As someone who scores high on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) test, Dani herself is a paragon of rebirth. After busting out of Red Bluff at 18 she found herself in Los Angeles for a bit before landing in Sonoma County in 1994. She briefly married a guy who made fun of her poetry—"I quit writing for a decade afterwards"—had a baby at age 22 and another at 26, struggled with anxiety and depression, and made it through a few months of homelessness thanks to dear friends and their vacant couches. When Dave, the father of her second child, cleaned out their bank account to buy drugs, she put her last two bucks into her gas tank so she could drive to a food bank and make dinner for her kids that night.
She kept on—channeling her anger into activism through Food Not Bombs and her camaraderie with the disenfranchised into case management with homeless vets. Dani went to Santa Rosa Junior College and New College, funding her master's degree in humanities by cleaning people's houses and substitute teaching, all while being a single mom. Through Myspace posts and DIY zines, she found her writing voice again and started an internship at this very newspaper under the tutelage of then-editor Gretchen Giles.
"I told myself I'd give it a year, then I'd get a Ph.D. in anthropology," Dani says. "But instead, I just kept writing."
Indeed. Landing a book deal is big for anyone; landing a book deal when you have no agent or MFA, when you can't even afford to enter book contests—that's something else. For years, Dani fought her way up through the dirt and made herself into the writer she wanted to be.
"I hustled, researched, networked and took every opportunity, apprenticeship and workshop that I could," she says.
The result is an impressive range of work that looks both inward and outward—from being celibate for three years and cooking her friend's placenta for McSweeney's Internet Tendency to penning a World Watch column for the Chicago Tribune. The Pacific Sun, Los Angeles Review, KQED Arts, various literary journals, The Rumpus, Yes! Magazine, Utne, Hip Mama Magazine—Dani's words can be found all over.
In 2009 she and former Bohemian staff writer Leilani Clark started offering writing workshops and producing zines as Petals and Bones. Dani also partnered with Napa writer Kara Vernor to co-host the reading and open-mic "Get Lit" series in Petaluma.
"I've often felt displaced, on the outside of things," Dani tells me. "So I just sort of threw together this scrappy writing life. I had to create community myself."
And she has. People crowd into her living room for her "process" workshops and into a dim "mafia" booth at a whiskey bar on Friday evenings for the salacious fun of Pens and Pints (full disclosure: I am a regular).
Tell Your Stories
These days Dani, energized after a recent breakup, can be found teaching memoir writing to adults through Santa Rosa Junior College and working on a full-length memoir of her own. Speaking of exes: will any of them recognize themselves in her stories?
"Yeah, it's possible," she says. I'm reminded of that Anne Lamott quote: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."
Some Places Worth Leaving launches on Saturday, Feb. 29 with a "kind of dark-performance-art-meets-literary-reading" at the Imaginists on Sebastopol Avenue in Santa Rosa. (If you've been waiting for the perfect opportunity to wear your black eyeliner and finger spikes, this might be it.)
For everyone who wept or raged (or both) through the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, this book is for you. For anyone who's ever known this truth—"You wonder if this will be the last of the men who don't love you or if he's just one more knot in your string of disappointment"—this book is for you. It's also for those who sense the redemptive power of nature (most stories take place outside, in forests and deserts, on lakes and beaches) and for those who might need reminding that resilience is in our DNA.
Despite all she's been through, Dani isn't bitter. Just the opposite: like her mom's flowers, like the Naked Ladies that bloom year after year in even the most forgotten cracks of earth, she embodies hope and possibility.
In "My Lady of Coconino County," the final story in her collection, the narrator's van breaks down in the Arizona desert as she's on her way to Arkansas for a fresh start. She's got two sweaty little kids, hundreds of dollars in van repairs and nowhere to stay. A kind woman offers them a meal, a bathtub and respite from the weary road.
As the narrator reflects back on the experience, she remembers the sound of the air conditioner and the howling coyotes, and ends with this: "I don't remember if the moon was out, beaming down on nearby Mt. Elden that night, but I like to imagine that it was."