Elana Dykewomon, Acclaimed Lesbian Author, Dead at 72

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Elana Dykewomon
Elana Dykewomon

Acclaimed lesbian author and activist Elana Dykewomon has died of cancer at age 72.

Dykewoman died Sunday at her home in Oakland, Calif., The Mendocino Beacon reports. Her death came just 20 minutes before a livestreamed performance of her first play, How to Let Your Lover Die, about the death of Dykewomon’s longtime partner, Susan Levinkind, of Lewy body dementia. Dykewoman had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer about a year ago, her brother David Nachman told the Beacon.

“I know Elana was so excited about having this play in the world and about these performances,” Jennifer Brier, her cousin and literary executor, told the paper. “I like to imagine that she knew we were all gathered to hear her words and watch the amazing performance. This allowed her to finally let go. At her heart, Elana was a poet, and yesterday was truly poetic.” The play is scheduled to be part of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

Dykewomon was known for important novels about lesbian life such as Riverfinger Women, a coming-of-age story published in 1974, and 1997’s Beyond the Pale, about Jewish lesbian immigrants from Russia who become involved in movements for social change in early-20th-century New York City.

Riverfinger Women has been named to The New York Times’ list of 100 Greatest Gay Novels, the Beacon notes, while Beyond the Pale won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction.

Dykewomon wrote poetry, essays, and other works as well. Some of her essays collected in her anthology Dispatches From Lesbian America, published in 2017. It included a piece about her suicide attempt in her youth after a doctor told her she couldn’t be gay. She also was editor of an international lesbian feminist journal, Sinister Wisdom, succeeding Adrienne Rich in the role, and taught at San Francisco State University.

“She taught legions of students, was generous with her editorial mentorship, and she shaped lots and lots of writers,” Brier told the Beacon.

She was born Elana Nachman in New York City in 1949. She changed her name after the publication of Riverfinger Women in order to no longer be defined by men. “I chose ‘dyke’ for the power, and ‘womon’ for the alliance,” she wrote in an essay.

A memorial event will be held later.