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

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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.

The Troubleseeker: A moving human chronicle that both entertains and lingers in our hearts.”

The first review is in…

“Alan Lessik’s The Troubleseeker succeeds on several fronts: as a passionate gay story that documents the devastation caused by AIDS in the epidemic’s early days; as a vivid depiction of post-revolutionary Cuba leading to the disastrous Special Period; and as a clever retelling of myth where the gods of the Greek pantheon and those of Santería mingle, compare notes, and join forces. The compelling tale of Antinio, the protagonist, in some ways evokes the life and times of the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas: a life where sex is a site of pleasure but also a means for empowering self-expression and identity. Lessik’s writing is rich in descriptions, by turns poetic, and delivered by a narrator whose own captivating story lures us in like the Siren’s call. A book you won’t want to stop reading, The Troubleseeker offers the best that literature can give: a moving human chronicle that both entertains and lingers in our hearts.”

Elías Miguel Muñoz, author of the novels The Greatest Performance, Brand New Memory, and Diary of Fire

Babalú Ayé and Apollo

Little did any of us know to whom Ricky Ricardo was singing on I Love Lucy. It is hard to imagine now that a Cuban singer with a thick accent would be broadcast driving himself into a trance-frenzy, ripping off his tie and staring intently above as he he saw something no one else did.

The song was Babalú named after the powerful Santería orisha or god  more formally know as Babalú Ayé.  He is the orisha of disease and the curing of  disease. Traditionally he was the orisha of smallpox  and by the 80’s he became the god of AIDS and now he has also taken on ebola.

He is a complicated god. He is not immune to human disease and his face is pockmarked by smallpox and he walks with a crutch. Yet at the same time, he can cure disease and as quickly he can inflict it on others.

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As Santería in Cuba has been syncretized with Catholicism, he is also know as St Lazarus.

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His Greek compatriot, Apollo, also had the same attributes of spreading  and curing disease. His specialty was the plague. In the Iliad, Apollo shot plague infested arrows into the Greek encampment. The picture below shows Apollo with Hyacinthus, an athletic Spartan prince who was one of his many lovers. The were playing Frisbee together when a jealous god blew Apollo’s discus off course hitting Hyacinthus in the head. He immediately died and filled with remorse, Apollo created the flower out of his blood.

As hot and sexy as he was, Apollo was a dangerous guy to hang out with. He gave another lover, Cyparissus, a javelin as a present. Cyparissus accidentally killed his favorite deer one night and he was so remorseful (remorse is big in Greek tragedy, although this may be the only deer remorsefulness in history), that he asked Apollo to let him shed tears forever. b8g32iwigaaqukqClearly this was a special deer with whom he spend many a night. Apollo turned Cyparissus into the cypress tree which year round keeps its leaves in the shapes of tear drops.

A third lover, Leucates, threw himself off a rock  when Apollo tried to carry him off. Finally, when his lover Carnus was killed, in revenge, Apollo struck the Dorians with plague which eventually died down after they began a cult to Apollo Carneius.

Why a god would both create and heal of disease is one of the many questions answered in The Troubleseeker