Interview with Elana Dykewomon
March 31, 2004
Elana Dykewomon (as you can imagine from her name) is a lesbian's lesbian. But if you haven't read her you'll be delighted to hear that she's a thinker's writer, in a category with Sarah Schulman and Lillian Faderman as one of our great minds, capable of complex insights and rigorous analysis of what makes culture tick. And not just queer culture -- Elana has an understanding of the web of history, oppression, and psychology as well. There's nothing trivial about her concepts. She doesn't write ditties or campy little puff pieces. You'll see her at demonstrations and conferences but not at pool-side cocktail parties. Which is not to say that she's dogmatic or dry but that she writes literature. Real literature, crafted with mirth and skill and subtlety.
Her own history of publishing mirrors the greater sweep of lesbian literature: from the do-it-ourselves days of lesbian publishing, through queer press success, to distribution by the mainstream.
"My first novel was Riverfinger Women, written for a straight publishing house that was putting out a new line of pornography for bored housewives," she laughs. "They rejected it. At the time, my goal was to write a lesbian novel with a happy ending, which was revolutionary at that time. And I was playing with frame and style, very interested in experimental and concrete poetry. Fortunately, the women's publishing movement began at that moment, and the first task was to own the printing presses and the publishing houses. Mine was the first book that was advertised in the New York Times that was identified as a lesbian book. It was important at the time to publish things for lesbians, so lesbians would know that lesbians were out there who loved them and cared about them."
This idea of reminding lesbians that they matter is a thread -- an unshakeable steel rod, really -- that runs through Elana's life and work. She calls herself a cultural worker, a term that's been around for 20 years, though not heard much lately.
"I know that's gone out of vogue, but I think it's still an important concept," Elana says. "I'm not so post-modern that I think that I'm just a conduit for the book, that you open your veins and it comes out -- anyone who has sweated over a book knows it isn't true that the community writes through you -- but I also don't subscribe to the hierarchical hype that writers are isolated geniuses. I still see myself as a cultural worker."
And she works hard. She served as editor of Sinister Wisdom, a quarterly, lesbian literary journal that published high quality, groundbreaking material, from 1987 to 1994. Her historical novel, Beyond the Pale, looked at Russian lesbian immigrants, and won both the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and the Ferro-Grumley Gay and Lesbian Triangle Publishing Association Award in 1997. She writes in many genres -- poetry, short stories, essays and novels. She created a short play, My Grandmother Play, featured in the 2001 Lunasea Short Play Festival, an annual event in San Francisco during which one-act plays are performed over a one-month period.
Beyond the Pale, originally published by the now defunct Press Gang in Vancouver, Canada, was reissued in October 2003 by Raincoast, the publisher with the Harry Potter contract for Canada. "It's the most mainstream experience I've had," she muses. "It's been very interesting. They flew me to New York City. They paid for me to stay in a hotel at the BEA. They have a publicity agent, and she actually does things for me. They have 120 employees and another publicist in Canada. It's intense. And it's run by a straight Scottish man who loves my book. He's almost evangelical about it. So you never know, that's all I have to say about that. You never know."
Elana is particularly pleased that Beyond the Pale reached not just lesbians but an audience of people over 70 who were eager to hear about women's immigrant experience. At the same time, a historical novel that won both of the queer community's top prizes is a hard act to follow.
"It was so difficult to write and so well received that the kind of writing that I do most often -- about contemporary lesbians -- just doesn't hit the same note," she says. "People tend to connect with people from another time. It's easier for people to feel kinship and understanding, and at the same time not feel that they have been asked by the narrative to feel or do anything in particular. What I understand about political movements is that one of the greatest recipes for success is to tell people that they're fine as they are. Political movements that require individual sacrifice can only last for so long, and will mostly appeal to younger people who are in the moment of change. Look at the self-help movement, for example. It starts with the concept that you're a good person, you just need to change a little thing. So historical fiction doesn't require that a reader examine their own lives: contemporary fiction has a greater potential to do that."
Most recently, Elana D. has published Moon Creek Road (May 2003, Spinster's Inc.), what she calls a collection of road trip short stories primarily about Jewish lesbians. She gathered the stories, which had been published in anthologies over the years, because the publisher approached her. Elana wanted to get another book into the market while she was working on her new novel, and so agreed "to put them together as coherently as I could, to form a kind of narrative." Where is Elana from originally? "You have to read Moon Creek Road to know the answer to that. New York, Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, Oregon, and now California."
The novel in progress (true to her deep political focus and ability with heady topics) "looks at issues of money in the lesbian community," she says. "I can't say a lot about it, of course, but the main character is a gambler. There isn't a single, simple philosophy in it, but I will say that I wish there were more formalized ways to share our resources. The issues of class and money have been with us always, but we seem to be talking about it less and less. I want us to keep that up front and not let it slip behind gender discussions."
While she's a hard-working woman with a clear sense of purpose, she's as plagued as the rest of us by blocks and inner demons. "Often I put off writing until I just can't stop myself," she says. "I have so many ideas that I find it hard to make the time to give them the space they need. I write in spurts. I get ideas for things and then I'll write 20 to 30 pages, and then my life intrudes and it's hard to get back to it. I'm learning to get back to things, to create the original ideas in such a way that I can get back to them. I really like to go away for four or five weeks to write because I love my life and I love my friends, but I'm easily distracted and there's always something else to do. I suffer from all the internal things that the rest of us have so I have to make time and space for my writing."
When asked to describe her dream life, Elana's aspirations don't sound like the pipe dreams of 20-year-olds as much as subtle adjustments to the life of a 54-year-old woman. For example, she's taught literature at San Francisco State University for eight years but wouldn't give up teaching. "I would still teach a lesbian writing class," she muses, "but I'd like to establish The Wandering Women Writers Community with a space where we could give our own workshops, and give people studio space. Of course I'd love to see Beyond the Pale made into a movie, but my real aspiration is to have the energy to keep writing," she says.
Asked how she would like to be remembered, Elana doesn't talk about artistic achievement or literary craft, she returns to her devotion to women. "I'd want to be remembered as a writer who wrote women, who has always loved women, and respects women enough to give them her very best," she says.