Elana Dykewomon, the pioneering lesbian writer and activist, died at her Oakland home on Sunday, just 20 minutes before the start of a staged reading of her first play, a moving account of her struggle to care for her longtime partner who died of dementia nearly six years ago. years earlier.
Dykewomon, 72, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in September, her brother, Dan Nachman, said. Over the past few weeks, she has continued to work via Zoom with the director and cast of “How to Let Your Lover Die” to prepare him for inclusion in the annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival, an annual event that showcases new work. .
In COVID-19 era fashion, the cast performed remotely with Dykewomon dying just before the play began airing. Viewers received the bittersweet news of his passing in the form of a message posted by his cousin, Jennifer Brier, in a live chat that accompanied the piece. Tributes immediately began pouring in, via chat or social media, in what amounted to an online version of a triumphant encore.
“I know Elana was so excited to have this piece out in the world and these performances,” said Brier, her literary executor. “I like to imagine she knew we were all here to hear her words and watch the amazing performance. It made her let go. Deep down, Elana was a poet and yesterday was truly poetic.
Dykewomon’s piece bluntly depicts her relationship with her late partner, Susan Levinkind, as she died in 2016 of Lewy body dementia, the progressive dementia that afflicted Robin Williams. Dykewomon’s character grapples with fear, exhaustion, grief, and end-of-life questions about assisted suicide, as she watches her lover succumb to a devastating disorder.
Nachman said he and other members of his sister’s inner circle, who were with her in her final moments, tuned in to watch after her death. “It was tough,” Nachman said. “But we wanted to see what she had created.”
Dykewomon may not be widely known to the general public, but she was a central figure in late 20th-century lesbian literature, history and activism, said Brier, who also runs the program. in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Born in New York in 1949, Dykewomon was 24 when she published her first novel, “Riverfinger Women,” in 1974, a coming-of-age story about lesbian life during the social upheaval of that time. As a pre-teen in the early 1960s, Dykewomon, then known as Elana Nachman, attempted suicide and was hospitalized. She knew she was somehow different, but doctors told her she couldn’t “be gay,” as she wrote in an essay included in the 2017 anthology, “Dispatches from Lesbian America.”
Always bright and “activist” from a young age, Dykewomon came out to her progressive boarding school, her brother said. Shortly after “Riverfinger Women” was published, she opted out of using Nachman as her last name because she didn’t want to be defined by men, she wrote in the essay. “I chose ‘dyke’ for power and ‘woman’ for alliance,” she wrote.
“Riverfinger Women” is underway the New York Times list of the 100 greatest gay novels, and his historical novel, “Go too far,” on Russian Jewish lesbians immigrating to America at the turn of the 20th century, won the 1998 Lamda Literary Prize for Lesbian Fiction. Her poetry, essays, and other works address themes of “lesbian love, Jewishness and identity, butchhood, fat oppression, mental illness, and incarceration,” reads -on in a statement from his friends and family.
In May, she was officially named a “pioneer” by the Golden Crown Literary Society, who said her prose portrayed “the lives of women and lesbians, both contemporary and historical, allowing us to see our stories on the page long before those stories were widely available.”
Many also remember Dykewomon as the longtime editor of Sinister Wisdomthe influential literary and arts journal previously edited by Adrienne Rich, as well as the classes she taught at San Francisco State for more than 15 years.
“She taught legions of students, was generous with her editorial mentorship, and shaped many writers,” Brier said. Among the writers influenced by Dykewomon is Giovanna Capone, who co-edited “Dispatches from Lesbian America” and who eventually became Dykewomon’s neighbor in the East Oakland enclave that is home to other LGBTQ artists and writers. .
Capone said she first read “Riverfinger Women” at upstate New York University. “I remember underlining different passages,” Capone said. “It helped me out. Who would have known that 40 years later I would be living across from her?
In their Oakland block, Dykewomon was known for her purple-painted home and for walking her little dog, Alice B. Toklas, Capone said. She and Levinkind, a retired attorney, shared the home, along with a commitment to promoting lesbian visibility and other causes.
Upon Levinkind’s death, Dykewomon wrote, “Grieving is the hardest form of celebration, but I am filled with the beauty of what I need to mourn.” Telling their love story, she decided to write her first play, an adventure and a challenge even for an experienced writer, Brier said.
“It was hard to write about Susan’s death, even though it was cathartic,” Brier said. “I can only imagine how much that changed as Elana watched her own death.”
After learning she had cancer, Dykewomon received help from her “chosen family,” the “awesome” women’s community “that mirrored the life she had made for herself,” her friends said. She also wrote on Facebook: “I had a lucky, full and wonderful life. It’s quite possible that I will recover, but I’m happy anyway.
A memorial for Dykewomon is planned for September. More information to come.
Staff photographer Jane Tyska contributed to this report.