Immersive finds new meaning in The Sea Elephants (Flatiron Books, 2023), a picaresque tragicomic novel by Shastri Akella. The likable, complex Shagun flees his own guilt, demons of abuse, boarding-school bullies, and family structure. Through his growth and self-incarnation as a goddess in a traveling street theater dedicated to bringing villages their own myths, we glimpse an India of tight communities and allies.
If page-turner means we get hooked by plot, here we savor timeless pages, standing next to Shagun inside a synesthete’s sensorium: he explores being a performer, a survivor, an eager student of life, a Bollywood-style wife boiling tea with slivered ginger for his beloved Marc. With Marc, an American photographer connected to Kochi’s Jew Town, Shagun enjoys both singular intimacy and the frisson of wry social commentary. We might find ourselves reading this novel for something far from any traditional novel’s offering and as much for the joy Shagun takes in sheer existence.
With its patient work, The Sea Elephants keeps us rooting for Shagun: he frees himself of the past by making peace with it and ends by receiving the touch of something beyond others’ incursions on his distinctive self. The journey becomes the destination, while Akella’s own trajectory—from birth in India to a California Google engineer, from MFA graduate to PhD scholar specializing in the gothic and monstrous, forever a teacher and writer—is itself the kind of tender picaresque a ravaged age like ours needs.
This interview unfolded by email over a series of months as Akella traveled on his first book tour.
The Rumpus: Who, at the outset of your journey, guided your thinking about what the novel can do, either historically or in our time? Who are your guiding lights now?
Shastri Akella: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Clay were my biggest literary influences when I began working on The Sea Elephants. Roy captures the perspective and language of children with verve and authenticity—their ability to regard the world with wonder and humor, even when the world they look at is brutal. Chabon skillfully uses comic books as a framing device that propels the story forward.
Both novels speak to collective traumas of a particular time and place, but they’re also rooted so deeply in specific human narratives that anyone who reads them can relate to the characters and, by extension, understand and feel the underlying trauma, however removed it is from their own temporality and geography. That, I learned, is how stories become universal. Not by losing their specificity but by rooting it in individual narratives.
I found working with a street theater troupe to be tremendously helpful as well, not only with the research that I needed—Shagun, the hero of my novel, is a street performer—but also as a means of understanding the intimacy that street performers share with one another and their audience. They are not separated from their audience by a stage. Instead, they perform in such proximity to their spectators that you can hear their breath and smell them.
Rumpus: How did your navigation related to these lighthouses shift during the writing of The Sea Elephants?
Akella: That intimacy I discovered in street performances shaped the platonic intimacy in my narrative and also, surprisingly, the intimacy at the prose level: a sentence can reveal the body, its beauty and resilience even in the face of violence. Shagun’s perspective on street theater was also shaped by Roy’s novel, for he regards the performances he witnesses with the same wonder that Estha and Rahel, the child-heroes of Roy’s novel, bring to the world around them. And while bringing myth into my novel in the same way that Chabon brought comics into his, I realized only later that the fluid exchange between Shagun’s interior life and the stories he performs was also influenced by the way the lives of the cousins in Chabon’s novel are shaped by and shape the comics they create.
Rumpus: Given your own arc, I wonder what has intrigued you most about the book’s journey?
Akella: I joined the UMass Amherst MFA program to work with the writer-professor Sabina Murray. In my second semester, I took her fiction workshop. She read the manuscript pages I submitted and pointed to the subtext in the narrative in which it was clear that Shagun, asexual in that draft, was attracted to men. Shagun did not, in that early draft, have a significant other, but there was an American tourist, Marc, who was his “friend.” Having started therapy, I came out on the last day of Sabina’s workshop. I had to, of course, rework the whole novel from the perspective of queer desire.
Rumpus: What is the Venn diagram overlap between your past as a Google engineer and your latter-day incarnation as both scholar and writer?
Akella: At Google, I had to present information to my clients in a way that made sense to the context of their business. I once had to, for instance, work with a couple selling industrial spare parts. They’d never worked with digital advertising, and I had to speak about it in a way that made it seem accessible to them, showing them how they can reach a broader client-base. This ethic came in handy when I was incorporating my street theater research into my novel. I had to include it in a way that both made sense within the context of the narrative and felt inviting to readers unfamiliar with India, Hindu myth, or the subculture of street performances.
Rumpus: You are a joyous scholar of horror and the monstrous. Is there a film that continues to inspire your imagination?
Akella: I highly recommend His House. Like the best, most thought-provoking horror, its monsters are metaphors for shared social anxieties. The film is about two refugees who relocate from South Sudan to London. It depicts survivor guilt through the lens of dreamlike, uncanny sequences drawn from African folklore.
Rumpus: Might you speak a bit on both your love of routines as well as your relation to dolls?
Akella: I like to wake at 5 a.m., do yoga, meditate, and then sit down with a mug of green tea to write from 5:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. This schedule has been my lifeline for making progress on my second novel that I am working on now. And I read at least for two hours a day. If I am traveling, I sometimes take a break from writing but never from reading.
The second part of this question is honestly my favorite! I love creepy vintage dolls. I see them as conduits to access other forms of consciousness, things that exist even when we can’t see them. And I feel safe when they’re around. Evil eye has nothing on them!
Rumpus: The relation between Shagun and his love interest, Marc, is undergirded by Shagun’s history of trauma as well as a postcolonial imprint. Away from spoilers, what surprised you in the process of writing their relationship and its arc?
Akella: The conflict in a lot of queer fiction that I have read and loved stems from a lack of awareness–one or both of the main characters do not realize that they are gay and are attracted to each other. In The Sea Elephants, I wanted Shagun and Marc to be aware of their queerness and the fact that their attraction is mutual. The social, heteronormative forces that cause gay characters to remain closeted in other stories are internalized by Shagun at a far deeper level of his psyche, so while he recognizes the nature and the subject of his attention, he is unable to act on it and does not know the reason for it. There is, to me, something far more insidious than ignorance–and that is a helplessness to act despite the possession of knowledge. I wanted to show that historic narratives—what Tanaïs calls “patramyths”—can, with sufficiently violent perpetuation, become integral to our psychological architecture and lead to erasures of our authentic selves if not interrogated.
When I came out and The Sea Elephants became a queer novel, I was intentional about this dynamic shaping the interactions between Marc and Shagun from their very first meeting. Shagun is flummoxed by his inability to reciprocate the love of someone he is obviously attracted to, and that paralysis also introduces an element of mystery into the novel. As Shagun goes about solving this mystery, the tension between the couple escalates, leading eventually to an act of violence. And in this way, the choice felt both politically and narratively vital to the telling of this story.
Rumpus: One of the great strengths of the novel is how you manage to bring a greater social context, and hence humanity, even to Shagun’s antagonists. How did you approach the creation and consolidation of the more difficult characters? And what changed in your own viewpoint during the writing?
Akella: The word “villain” shares a root with “villa” because it often referred to those who were indentured labor on the antiquarian counterpart to a plantation. They were labeled as dangerous and over time the label became not just a believable story but a word that came to mean “dangerous character.” It is a history that is all too familiar and relevant to the times we live in. So it felt necessary to strip back the label of villain, to reveal, alongside the pain that these antagonists cause Shagun, the circumstances that caused them to privilege one belief or aspect of their personality—to let it eclipse their complexity, the very thing that makes us human. For instance, Rusty, whom we meet in the first part of the book, turns out to be Shagun’s key adversary in boarding school (without giving too much away). And yet, he is also the product of his upbringing, his imagination and empathy stunted by narratives of power and masculinity. Does knowing why he is the way he is excuse his behavior? Certainly not. But at the very least our awareness acknowledges him as human, flawed for a reason, his fears and vulnerabilities surfacing in moments when he is confronted by the limitations of his power.
Rumpus: What were any of the initial sparks for the novel that the process of writing asked you to utterly abandon?
Akella: Right now, The Sea Elephants is 320 pages long—around 100,000 words. The draft that I had turned in for my MFA defense was 180,000 [words] and 850 pages long. That I had reduced the font size to disguise its heft to make it seem like 550 pages is a whole other story! (Upon my graduation, my alma mater exercised a page limit on thesis submissions and made sure to specify font types and sizes). The novel previously began with an elaborate narrative of Shagun’s family life, specifically, the time he spent with siblings before they die: not a spoiler, since the fact is revealed in the first line of the novel!
Upon conversations with Sabina Murray and fellow-MFA alum Andrew MacDonald, both of whom read a significantly revised draft a few years after my MFA, I understood that I need not provide the history of the sibling dynamic with nearly as much detail. What I wanted was for readers to know that Shagun shared a very close bond with his sisters so they understand why their passing affects him as deeply, and I could do that by bringing up memories in dialogue or interior reflections that are sprinkled throughout the novel.
I found a handy analogy that Andrew shared to be instructive. When we make a new friend, we don’t sit him down at a bar for six hours straight and say, “Hey, here’s everything important that has happened in my life so far.” Far from deepening a bond, it might understandably dilute the friendship to an acquaintanceship. What we do instead is to bring memories up organically. When a friend complains about a difficult conversation with a demanding parent, for instance, we commiserate by saying something in the vein of, “I totally get it. You know what my dad told me when I said I wanted to quit my job to study writing?” Intimacy between friends is, in other words, built incrementally, as someone is drawn to you and finds you interesting enough to stay, then starts liking you as they get to know who you were as they see and experience who you are.
The relationship between readers and the characters they encounter is no different. If the opening presents an intriguing character they want to know and therefore commit to spending a few hundred pages with, subsequent chapters allow them to simultaneously see this character navigating the narrative present and recollecting the narrative past; where the present allows you to know who this character is, the past allows us to know why the character is that way. The division is, of course, not always that neat, but it was a handy beginning point as I started to edit and trim down The Sea Elephants. I cut those early 100 pages, began six months after the sisters died, and went on to bring the memories of the sisters back over the eight-year span of the novel.
Rumpus: Can you characterize your own journey, in relation to the concept of autofiction?
Akella: In an essay I had written for the TORCH series The Rumpus published in 2017, I relate the fact that I thought I was asexual when I started the MFA program. When Sabina Murray read an early draft of the novel that I submitted in her workshop, she pointed to the subtext in the novel that reveals Shagun as gay—as having romantic feelings for Marc (who, in that early draft, was Shagun’s “friend”). In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter describes subtext as a narrative truth that festers in the margins and shadows of the novel until, at some point, it explodes to the surface, no longer uncontainable.
Our writing, I think, can be wiser than us because it allows the subconscious to express, in the story’s subtext, the wisdom and truths that our conscious mind severs our access to. My writing revealed my subliminal awareness of my sexuality, and once it had surfaced, it was no longer containable. I took therapy and came out on the last day of Sabina’s workshop. I then decided to rewrite the whole novel through the lens of queer desire. Simply replacing “friend,” in the context of Marc, with “boyfriend,” felt inadequate. I wanted Shagun, unlike me, to be aware of his sexuality from the beginning, in the way I wish I was, and I wanted him to fear the very real possibility of persecution as much as I did. Similarly, he has no stage fright, which is something I wish for myself, and he believes, like I do, in the power of found family. So in this way, he shares my emotional architecture and is also a conduit for vicarious wish fulfillment. His reality is, however, entirely unlike my own. This distance was necessary for me to be able to write the novel.
One of the two great powers of writing fiction is the capacity to invent, to activate the imagination and access realities unlike our own—and through this access, engage in an act of radical empathy, which is the other power of fiction writing. One, of course, has to depict realities removed from our own with sensitivity, and that is where revision comes in: reflecting, through refining, until we arrive at an emotionally resonant and authentic fiction. As you can see from my responses, I do think the ethics and values of fiction-writing are best served through an attention to craft.
Rumpus: Another great pleasure of the novel rests in its ethos of hospitality, how you construct domestic scenes of intimacy. Do you have a particular aesthetic in mind in terms of how you enter and exit scenes?
Akella: A phrase that I’ve heard a lot of my friends use in the recent past is “love language.” How do we express affection in ways that transcend language and soothe a specific ache in the subject of our loving or evoke in them a joy that is particular to who they are? Shagun’s love language is acts of service. He likes to care for his found family and for Marc. Rather than a straightforward transaction of “you express your concern, I will take care of it”—which can veer dangerously to the problem-solving mode—he is interested in listening, in being present, and then intuitively responding with an act of service that is needed in that moment. The fact that we are complex beings means that the same answer will not work each time. For instance, we sometimes respond to stress by buying a bath bomb on Lush, and sometimes by sending a friend a voice note. So the hospitality in the novel stems from Shagun’s core value, his love language.
In terms of craft, I constructed and/or edited those scenes by measuring their emotional temperature: what are things like when the scene began, what particular vulnerabilities are expressed when the scene begins, and how are those vulnerabilities, if not resolved, soothed somewhat by the time the scene ends, and what acts of service cause the transition. Especially now, when the economy of attention has reached a state of deep recession, deep listening can be a high act of service, but I think this is true of the ’90s as well, when the story is set.
Rumpus: What might be the ideal journey you would wish your reader to enjoy?
Akella: The power of allyship. In his review of The Sea Elephants, written for the Jewish Book Council, reviewer Nathan Blum observes that one of the strengths of The Sea Elephants is its depiction of the “vital, life-giving force of genuine allies. These vibrant secondary characters are the novel’s plot-movers, fate-holders, question-askers, and humor-providers. Only with their love and support does Shagun stand a chance at resisting hegemonic social structures and breaking down the internalized barriers rooted deep within him.” Like all of us who live our lives on the fringes, Shagun goes out into the world and makes his own family. And I’d like readers to see that his found family helps him evolve into a more fully realized version of himself.
Author photograph by Subhadra Madhavan