A potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism-Review by Lambda Literary

Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker is an audacious debut novel.  No less a figure than Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Buccellanus Augustus (better known to us as the Roman Emperor Hadrian) narrates this tale. Deified after death, and therefore a demigod, he is able to interact with the immortal gods of ancient Greece and the orishas of Cuban Santería.  Unlike them, however, Hadrian can suffer the all-too-human feelings of love, an experience that extends into his post-mortal existence, and inspires acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of Antinio, the book’s mortal protagonist.  Hadrian cannot make himself known to humans, but he can, in a limited fashion (and at great cost to himself) extend his protection to Antinio, and does so several times over the course of the novel.

Antinio, despite his name, does not resemble Hadrian’s beloved Antinous (who drowned at the age of nineteen), except insofar that he too is literate, educated, and a great physical beauty.  Instead, he embodies the wily Odysseus (the eponymous “troubleseeker” of the book’s title), and his uncanny charm with women and men both continually lands him into and then out of trouble. The novel chronicles Antinio’s life-journey, which lasts far longer than ten years, and covers far more ground than the mythic islands of the Mediterranean. His facility with languages allows him to travel to Europe, and eventually he leaves his native Cuba for America, arriving in Florida before heading to Minneapolis and then eventually settling in California.  Similar to Odysseus’ journey, Antinio’s continual travels represent his search for home.  When Antinio immigrates to America, he is sundered from his wife and twin sons, but reuniting with them does not return him to himself as it did Odysseus; it is only by leaving Cuba that Antinio manages to establish an authentic identity as a Gay man.

Antino is not obsessed with the classical Greek preoccupation of avoiding one’s pre-ordained fate—nor does he share the ancient Greek distrust of that force called eros, the powerful, all-consuming love that even the gods feared because of its extreme potential for disruption.  Indeed, erotic love remains constant throughout his life, even during the repressive regimes of post-revolution Cuba and Reagan-era America, and even after he is stricken with HIV. (Lessik combines and subverts these two themes by naming the three great loves of Antinio’s life after each of the Greek Fates:  Antinio’s fate is to love, and he in turn loves Fate.)  For all that nearly every character takes his/her name from Greek myth, the Greek gods themselves play but a minor role in the narrative; the actions of the Cuban orishas result in greater consequences, as when Babalú Ayé (the orisha of disease and healing) creates the virus that eventually leads to AIDS.

Still, this book is not a recycling of Greek myth in Caribbean drag, any more than it is merely a retelling of love during the recent devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic with added fantastical elements to make the suffering mythic in scope. Lessik deftly weaves several narrative strands to create this story, which becomes greater than any of its single parts. Far more than the life story of one immigrant’s journey, or a Gay man’s search for love and/or identity, this odyssey is a potent mash-up of contemporary history, Greek mythology, Caribbean Santería, and queer eroticism, and in its own way is just as epic.

Lambda Literary Review  by Keith Glaeske

The Troubleseeker: a Stunningly Creative Novel-Gay & Lesbian Review

“This stunningly creative novel, The Troubleseeker…with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, …is a powerful first novel.”

Gay & Lesbian Review of The Troubleseeker

This stunningly creative novel combines history and mythology from several cultures to tell the story of Antinio, a gay Cuban man, as he searches for freedom and love in the face of oppression and disease. It is narrated by Hadrian, the brilliant emperor of ancient Roman whose male lover Antinous died by drowning at age nineteen, whereupon Hadrian made him a god and had statues of Antinous erected all over the Empire. Hadrian,now a disembodied demi-god with limited supernatural powers, takes an interest in Antinio, actively saving h is life on several occasions. He also meets with several of the Greek gods and with the orishas of the Santería faith who migrated to Cuba from Africa during the slave trade-learning about their role in human affairs. It is an unusual blend, but holds together throughout to tell a compelling story. There is a helpful character guide at the beginning.

Antinio’s story begins in childhood, under the Castro regime. Skilled in languages, after an eventful stint in the military, he works as a translator in the Ministry of Culture, assist ing visiting artists and performers. This job also helps him to meet many like-minded men, and he has a few passionate affairs. Unfortunately, due to Cuba’s macho culture and the leadership’s repressive stance on homosexuality, he must keep his feelings and relationships a secret, even from his family. This leads to powerful feelings of guilt and shame, enough to create a chorus of Lamenters, Shriekers, and a Siren, which torment him throughout his life. He also has a brief relationship with a woman, which leads to children; his relationship with them will come to haunt him.

After a botched attempt to escape to East Germany, Anti­nio finds another opportunity when the Cuban government allows homosexuals and other undesirables to leave via the Mariel Boatlift. This makes for an unusual scene, when Anti­nio, w ho has always presented himself as a ‘”macho” type, must now adopt the stereotype of the effeminate gay man to the authorities to convince them that he’s gay. He arrives in the U.S., ending up in Minnesota, where he struggles to adjust to an unfamiliar climate and culture. He begins to find community, work, and lovers, but he’s hit hard by the AIDS crisis. Despite Hadrian’s power, he cannot save Antinio. But he can tell his story.

A love of language infuses the novel. The characters’ names are mostly derived from Greek mythology and language. Anti­nio’s wife is Circe and his sons are named Icario and Polideuces. His best friend is Erato, the muse of love and erotic poetry. A bully is named Apolion, from the word for destroyer. Even the novel’s title, according to Hadrian, comes from a translation of the hero Odysseus’ name, which literally means “to be grieved at.” (The actual etymology of Odysseus is uncertain.) As a young man Antinio falls in love with the constructed international language Esperanto, and his job in the U.S. involves creating a computer program that can translate any language. Spanish is also scattered throughout the novel.

The gods and orishas play an unusual , sometimes troubling role in the story, helping to influence human affairs while generally staying away from individual people. Babalu Ayé, responsible for disease and healing, is the creator of HIV, although he takes no responsibility for its effects. This reader could not help but remember certain religious figures who declared AIDS to be God’s punishment for homosexuality. Not that the novel is suggesting that, but it’s an uncomfortable association nonetheless. That said, with its accessible writing, a compelling central character, and a fascinating blend of languages and cultures, The Troubleseeker is a powerful first novel.

Charles Green is a writer based in Annapolis, Maryland.

 

 

 

A Conversation with Alan Lessik 

This was one of the last pieces that Dave Robb wrote before his death in November 2016. He was a fantastic editor.

A Conversation with Alan Lessik
Interview by Dave Robb.

On a foggy summer morning in San Francisco, Dave Robb sat down with Alan Lessik over a plate of homemade waffles. Lessik’s debut novel, The Troubleseeker, published by Chelsea Station Editions, was recently released and has been getting positive reviews.

In addition to being a writer, Lessik is a Zen practitioner, amateur figure skater, LGBT activist, and non-profit director. His non-fiction works include news articles published in the Advocate, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Frontiers. His contribution to KQED Radio Perspectives, “Judge Not His Death,” was one of the most commented on in 2014.

Dave Robb: The Troubleseeker ties together so many unexpected elements—Santería and Greek gods, mythological figures, a Roman emperor—with scenes of post-revolutionary Cuban life, life as an asylum seeker in the US, AIDS, mental illness, sex, and aging as a gay man. In many debut novels, characters are inspired by real-life people or events. From the book’s dedication, it appears that Antinio, the hero of your tale, was based on a real person.

Alan Lessik: Yes, the Mariel boatlift in 1980 brought over 64,000 Cubans to the US, one of whom was my later partner, René Valdés. He left Cuba after several run-ins with the authorities due to his sexual orientation, and after arrival in Key West, he was sent to the Fort McCoy Processing Center near La Crosse, Wisconsin. Alone without relatives to support him, he was rescued by a group of gay activists. He had a ten-year fight with the INS to become a citizen. He was infected by the AIDS virus shortly after he arrived in the US.

His story was an immigrant story, a story of survival during the bleakest period of the AIDS crisis, a story of love and finding home. My willingness to believe his well-honed survivor’s tale meant that I was blindsided by his death. Despite my understanding of his fatal mental illness, I was left confused and wanted to understand why he died.

DR: So you set out to write a book explaining this—why he died.

AL: That question was sitting in my unconscious and permeated the story as it emerged. Each of the elements you mentioned earlier, the gods and mythological elements, appeared as I wrote. Since I was not there for much of René’s life, I had to imagine what had happened. And once I started to do that, all sorts of interesting characters appeared.

Their origins came in part from thinking about his mother, who was a teacher of ancient history in a high school in Havana. I only knew her through René’s stories, so she herself is a mythical character to me. From there the ideas flowed, of using The Odyssey and other stories, of naming the hero Antinio, after Antinous, the lover of the emperor Hadriano…

DR: You point out that Odysseus was both storyteller and actor in his story. Just as Odysseus would comment on his story, you use this form of commentary in your book.

AL: Zen teaching says that each of us creates a story of an entity called “me.” The mind that controls the “me” attempts to make sense out of the world and the experiences it encounters. But the created story of the self has little to do with reality; the story is only an internal prism to break down feelings and experiences and sort them as fitting or not fitting with who we think we are.

Over time, our story becomes an amalgam of events, loves, hurts, losses, and mistakes that shape our narrative. Most of us believe this invented story of who we are is real. However, the truth about any storyteller is that the story is always on their terms. What is revealed is what we want to reveal; what is not is kept a secret, perhaps even from ourselves.

As I wrote, René’s story (which were his own inventions describing his life) changed as it became the story of Antinio. And when I brought in Hadriano as the narrator, he demanded to tell his story. As a demigod he had access to the pantheons of gods throughout the world and two thousand years to reflect on life. At this point, the narrow world of post-revolutionary Cuba expanded significantly.

DR: Let’s talk about sex. I love that you are so sex-positive in the book.

AL: Gay men love each other against all odds. We have lived through an extraordinary 50 years of blossoming LGBT rights, and I want to celebrate what we as a community have to offer the world. With the advent of same-sex marriage, there seems to be an attempt to “straitjacket” gay men into monogamy as our only choice. Sex is just one part of our lives. We don’t believe that our partners will be our only source of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual support, and it makes no sense to assume this one person can meet all of our sexual needs. All relationships are by nature complicated. That is their beauty.

DR: The Greek gods and Santería orishas in your book seem to see something special in LGBT people.

AL: One can’t read about the Greek and Santería pantheons without appreciating the fluidity of gender and love. Almost all of them have multiple sex partners, and many have both same- and opposite-sex partners. The orishas are especially fluid with gender. Most have various caminos or identities that can be both male and female. So, of course they would love LGBT people over straight folks. As the orishas tell their stories, a different narrative emerges about our place in the world.

DR: I have never read a book before that includes the point of view of the AIDS virus.

AL: As I was writing, I could not reconcile how Apollo and Babalu Ayé were gods that simultaneously brought about disease and cured disease. It occurred to me that if there were gods of humans and various animals, why not a god of the tiniest beings, viruses? Just as the gods can’t control human or animal nature, they cannot control how viruses interact with their world. The epidemiological journey is their own Odyssey. The stigma attached to AIDS is a human invention, not a viral one.

DR: I saw that Elías Miguel Muñoz compared you to Reinaldo Arenas. That’s quite a compliment. How did you manage to capture Cuba so well?

AL: I have been to Cuba six times since 2002 visiting René’s family and friends. Cuba in my first visit was in many ways little changed from the 70’and 80’s depicted in the book. Staying with family provided insight into everyday Cuban life that tourists never see. I did a lot of listening and watching as I wanted to understand how people managed around the shortages and repression and how gay people managed their secret lives. Walking around decaying neighborhoods and talking with friends, family or people on the street, I discovered that most people still saw the city as it had been in the days of past glory.

Cuban life centers around the home and extended family members and close neighbors came in and out of the open front door without announcing themselves. I quickly became integrated into the family and its web of relationships which have continued after René’s death. As death of the older generation and migration of the younger have taken its toll, I am one of three remaining family members, all of us in-laws who continue to uphold the family history.

In my latest visit this last summer, I could see the historic grandeur of Havana was coming back, block by block. At night, hundreds of Cubans would gather to connect to Wi-Fi that was available in a central park in each major city. Very few sites were blocked, and it was easy to connect with Cuban men on Planet Romeo. People were still talking about President Obama’s visit and his unprecedented access to the Cuban airwaves for his speech. Despite all this, Cubans have too much experience with disappointments, so there is still quite a bit of uncertainty and concern about the future.

DR: I have one final question. If The Troubleseeker were made into a movie, what part would Meryl Streep play?

AL: Ha, that’s an easy one. Yemayá, the mother of all orishas and of all waters. Yemayá has a bad-girl attitude. She was married to several of the orishas and therefore has the skinny on all of them. She’s in charge, but still no one listens to her. And when she gets angry, she is willing to spite them all and wipe out the earth. In the end, though, she knows she has to be the responsible adult in the room and whips everyone together in action. Only Meryl has the skills to inhabit a role like that.

__________

Dave Robb is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.

A&U Magazine Review of The Troubleseeker

Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
The Gods are a fickle lot. In Alan Lessik’s imaginative new novel, they reign over man both with an iron fist and a tender hand. The narrator of this piece is the Roman emperor Hadrian, deified upon his death and mourning the loss of his great love, his soldier Antinous, who sacrificed himself for the sake of Hadrian’s glory.

He finds a surrogate in a young boy in Castro’s Cuba of the sixties, Antinio. He watches Antinio grow into a man of great beauty on the post-revolutionary island. Antinio lives in Havana, (“Havana, more so than any other Cuban city, had sex in the air all the time. It was languid, thick, hot, and moist.”) Antinio is filled with sexual longing; he is different, however. He longs for the beauty of other men above all. His homosexuality and the constrictions of living under Communist rule eventually drive him to flee Cuba at the age of twenty.

He begins his American life in Minneapolis, where he meets the second of the fated three great loves of his life. There he contracts HIV (“And in this first meeting, a group of tiny beings made their escape from Laquesio to Antinio. Neither were aware of this, and no humans knew anything about them.”). Antinio is not only watched over by Hadrian and other Greek and Roman deities. The Gods of Santaria, who rule over his native land, exert their heavy influence. In his mind always are the voices of a Greek chorus, Reason, the Lamenters, the Shriekers, and finally the Siren’s call.

The Troubleseeker is a novel imbued with sex, sensual and often erotic. Antinio is a prolific lover, with many pleasurable encounters. The author’s use of the Spanish language to describe acts of passion add another layer of eroticism. Of course, as with any narrative of the time, the AIDS crisis looms large. Its mystical gods provide a context for the pain and loss that Antinio encounters. Some are the cause of suffering; other gods provide relief and succor. It’s a mystical and effective device and makes for a rich story.

AIDS, in this narrative, is not only presented as an end to life. Also explored are the pain of survival, surviving the death of people you love and the damage it and living with HIV can do to oneself. How did we, as a community survive such a pandemic? How does it continue to affect our lives today? Since there are no easy answers to the hows and whys of HIV/AIDS, a colorful and fantastical explanation is something that can be quite cathartic.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.

A&U, America’s AIDS magazine, is a national non-profit HIV/AIDS magazine.

An exceedingly rich novel, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: GLBTRT-ALA review of The Troubleseeker

GLBT Round Table, American Library Association

This is truly a fantastic first novel, in both senses of “fantastic”: really good, but also based on fantasy, unless you are a true believer in the Greek and Santeria gods.  Our hero is Antinio, a gay Cuban with a large extended family, perhaps middle class but after the revolution just barely hanging on.  The novel is told in the third person, but the main narrator is the Roman emperor, Hadrian (Hadriano), whose lover Antinous dies too early.  Antinio is named for him.  Hadrian was deified after his death and became a demi-god.  In addition, the Santeria Orishas play a major role.  Unlike the God of the Judeo Christian tradition, these gods participate actively in the daily lives of their people.  Luckily, at the front of the novel there is a list of all the Santeria Orishas and Antinio’s’ choruses: Reason, the Lamenters, the Shriekers, and the Siren, all of whom try to guide him.  Also listed are all the humans in the novel.

Antinio has an active gay life in Cuba, with lots of encounters and one primary lover Cloto.  Antinio becomes an accomplished linguist and is sent to East Germany for a time.  On the way back he hopes to leave the plane in Madrid and apply for asylum, but he is not permitted to leave the plane.  Eventually he leaves Cuba on the Mariel Boatlift.  He is shipped to Minnesota, where he is harassed for being gay until local gay activists rescue him.  He falls in love with his second lover, Laquesio, who dies of AIDS, which was just descending on gays and everyone else.  Antonio gets AIDS too, but survives long enough for the new meds which permit him to live his life.  He brings his twin boys and former wife to the U.S.  They settle in Miami.  Antinio moves to San Diego and gets a good job with a high tech translation firm.  He falls in love with Atropos in San Francisco.  They commute back and forth until Antinio’s job falls apart with newcomers who advocate machine translation rather than human knowledge of language.  He moved to San Francisco.  His health fails and eventually he commits suicide.

This is an exceedingly rich novel, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially his One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It is highly recommended for libraries collecting modern gay literature, especially with a Latinx flavor.  It is expertly told, although one must pay attention because Hadrian the main narrator and the Santeria Orishas step in whenever they want to.  All readers open to exciting new gay novels will also want to read this book.

James Doig Anderson
Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science, Rutgers University

“Lessik’s prose is always sympathetic and eloquent”–Kirkus Review

“A handsome but tormented Cuban man finds both joy and hardship in this operatic novel.”–Kirkus Review

“Lessik’s debut novel has just about everything: love, identity, politics, the politics of identity, heartbreak, mythical overtones, and innumerable gods in the machine. Antinio grows up in a Cuba that is unapologetically militant (whereas he is peaceful), irreligious (where he is polytheistic), and macho (while he is gay). He has advantages too: he’s winsome, muscular, quick to learn foreign tongues, and has a very big pinga. He first comes to enjoy sex with boys at a military encampment during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. After he’s raped by one of the more vicious boys, he attempts suicide and returns to civilian life. But to be gay is to violate taboo in the Cuba of the ’60s and when Antinio’s affections are revealed, he’s expelled from college and comes to feel himselflower than a worm. As an adolescent, Antinio’s favorite book is The Golden Ages, a primer on the gods of Olympus and the heroes they championed. “Antinio saw the similarity between the gods he was studying and the Santería orishas,” in various aspects of the godhead’s divinity. Characters in the novel (Calypso, for example, the woman who protects his secrets and gets him readmitted to the university as a linguist) appear with names from Greek mythology, but there is a decided mixing of influence: Calypso, in the book, is also a priestess of Santería. A doctor who tends his fate in a psychiatric ward is named Minos. This is charming, if unsubtle, and the key at the beginning of the work—spelling out the meaning of the characters’ Greek names and what roles they play in the narrative—probably gives the game away a bit too early. But there’s another level to the metaphor: “Antinio and his partners use the terms Greek-active and -passive to describe their sexual behavior.” To be gay was (and is) often to be scorned in America as well, and when the story follows Antinio’s journey to Minnesota as a refugee, and then, later, into illness and suffering, Lessik’s prose is always sympathetic and eloquent.

“Olympian and Santería mythologies merge in this international romance.”

Available now in early release on Amazon