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.