Zibby interviews debut author Shastri Akella about The Sea Elephants, an utterly immersive and spellbinding queer coming-of-age novel set in 1990s India, about a young man who joins a traveling street theater troupe as he tries to outrun the dark secrets of his past. Shastri shares how this novel suddenly became a queer love story (thanks to his professor!) and helped him come out in real life. He also shares his challenges with unsupportive family members and his decision not to return to India, where Hindu conversion therapy is prevalent. Finally, he shares how he got here, from working in tech at Google to MFA, teaching refugee art classes, and publishing this beautiful book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Shastri. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss your debut novel, The Sea Elephants. Look at this gorgeous cover, by the way. Oh, my gosh.

Shastri Akella: I know. It’s so amazing. I really lucked out.

Zibby: For those listening, how would you even describe this? Baby blue background of a painted face, red and yellow and white. I’m doing a terrible job. It’s really gorgeous. Inviting and gorgeous.

Shastri: It’s the mask of one of the characters in the story.

Zibby: It’s perfect. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about?

Shastri: The Sea Elephants is a queer coming-of-age novel set in nineties India. I started writing this book about a character who leaves home seeking intimacy out in the world. I also wanted to add nuance to what intimacy means. You typically think of intimacy as romantic. The other kind in this book explores the intimacy that exists between friends and found family, between storytellers and listeners. The character finds all this, but ultimately, he also falls in love with himself. It’s this journey where he goes out seeking the intimacy but falls in love with himself.

Zibby: It’s wonderful. I was really taken from the very beginning of this book when his dad returns. He’s sixteen years old. He’s just lost his twin sisters. You explain several chapters in how it happened, which is so harrowing and partially his fault. He feels totally responsible, of course. Then his dad, who he’s never met, comes home after the loss of his sisters and is horrific and violent. I was literally reading and had to grab my daughter. She’s like, “What? What?” I was like, “Oh, my god, his dad just –” There’s a lot of feeling from the beginning. We’re wrapped up in emotion of pain and uncertainty and loss. It’s this amazing introduction to every sense, honestly. Tell me about even starting to write this book, why you wanted to write this book, all of it, and how you packed so much in in such a graceful way as an introduction, the first part, even.

Shastri: Thank you. As somebody who is queer, a lot of my extended family is very homophobic. As long as I lived in India, I thought I was asexual. I had not come out until I came to the US and actually started writing this book. When I workshopped this novel, my professor, Sabina Murray, said, “This is dying to be a gay love story. Why aren’t you letting it be one?” Marc was his friend in those early drafts. She was very empathic in the way she pointed to specific elements of the subtext where it was clear that Shagun desires Marc. I took therapy, and I came out on the last day of her workshop when she hosted this potluck at her place. Then I had to rewrite this whole book as a queer love story. Then my own coming out just had a lot of problems with some members of my biological family and a lot of my extended family. In some ways, my found family in the US, other queer friends were so supportive and helped me embrace myself and be comfortable in my skin. Those personal experiences really shaped the next version of the story. Even as Shagun moves from that space of violence, he finds Saaya and Rooh and Su and all these friends and Marc, his boyfriend. They help him be comfortable with who he is. For me, I just wanted to talk about it how it is an anxiety-inducing experience being queer, especially when you come from communities that are that homophobic, but there is always a way out. That’s what I wanted this book to be about. It starts in that very difficult place but moves into a place of hope.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. I can’t believe that your teacher is the one who could pick up on that. What a workshop. That’s amazing. What was it like, though, and how is it now with your family who is so unsupportive? Have you cut ties with them? Did they accuse you of being gay back then and you denied it? What was the difficulty between you and your family like before? How is it now?

Shastri: It all came up because I was refusing to have an arranged marriage, as the Indian Netflix show. That’s a huge part of the Hindu culture in India. I kept pushing back against it. Then I came to the US. Because I was posting publicly, gay writing, short stories that got published online, and essays, it was out there. One of my uncles found out. Then one of my cousins found out. They told my parents. It just became a very explosive situation. I remember there was one year — I was on a student visa then. I had to get it extended because I went into a PhD program after my master’s. I did not feel safe going back to India, so I did end up going to Canada to get my visa extended that year. It was a difficult five years. Eventually, even if not a full-fledged acceptance, it’s gotten to the point where we’re fine as long as you don’t talk about it directly to us. On the positive side, one of my sisters — her kids were born and raised here. They’re very open-minded, especially my niece. My niece actually read my novel. The last time I visited my sister’s family, she had really specific, clear questions about the book. It was nice to get to that point where my niece, who is in college now — she’s my first family member who’s read the book. There are those openings. Because of her children, my sister’s sort of come to a point of acceptance. I think she realized her kids are born and raised here and she has to, in some ways, open her ideas of what is acceptable. To her credit, she’s really done that. She and my niece are two members of the family who’ve sort of come to accepting it, my niece more so, in a more open way.

Zibby: In this explosive time, was there violence against you the way it happened in the book, things like that?

Shastri: Not to that extent. There was a definite threat of violence, which is why I didn’t go back. That was how I found out about conversion therapy. There was this threat that a certain family member explicitly said. “We are going to send you to this conversion therapy. There’s this holy man. He’s going to fix you. Then you’ll get married and have a kid.” I, until then, did not know that Hindu conversion therapist exists. I knew it existed in the Christian framework because of Boy Erased, a memoir. Once it became safe, I went back. Through my queer community in India, I ended up talking to men who were forced into conversion therapy. I am just so grateful I escaped it by having the privilege of living in the US and being able to go to Canada. If that didn’t happen, I would be there today and not here talking to you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Tell listeners a little bit more about what that means, conversion therapy, and how it plays out in India.

Shastri: The different branches of Hinduism that — each depending on the kind of god they worship, they sort of — it is so horrible because the original Hindu so welcoming and celebratory of queer identities. Conversion therapy takes a very watered-down, conservative view that is being perpetuated in India now. In the book, there is this one man who worships Shiva. It’s this idea of, we’re going to get you to the point where you’ll be possessed by this Hindu god. He’s celebrated as an icon of masculinity, just as Hanuman, who’s in the book, is. These gods will possess you and make you real men. That involves something which almost borders on black magic. It’s this idea of listening to these chants, striking you physically with sacred , sacred ash, and then getting you to reorient your thought process in a way that you find women attractive and not men attractive. Some of these places also, as described in the book, they get you to watch straight porn. The idea is if you look at straight porn — after you go through sacred ceremony in the morning, then in the afternoons you watch straight porn. The irony of it is just lost on the people who set these systems up. Then the test to make sure that you are fully converted — some places are not as extreme, but some are, where they literally force you to have sex with a woman. Then if you’re not able to do it, then you have to go through the whole process again.

Zibby: The cruelty that exists is mind-boggling. That all these things are happening while we go about our days, it’s just awful, so awful.

Shastri: The whole same-sex marriage debate that’s happening in India right now, there is such a huge push to make it happen. Some are hopeful it will happen. Societally, it’s a long way away from getting anywhere close to acceptance. Public figures are openly saying, the next thing they’ll promote is marriage between men and their dogs. That kind of rhetoric is being perpetuated.

Zibby: As if those are so close. Oh, my goodness. Although, I do love my dog. She’s so cute. She’s right behind me. Tell me a little bit about the writing process of this book and what went into that for you and when you came up with the idea and where you were when you wrote it all. Tell me all that good stuff.

Shastri: When I started thinking about the book, I was working for Google. Like a lot of South Asians, I did my undergraduate in computer science. I wasn’t satisfied with it. Then I found this street theater troupe. I just wanted to travel with them and write for them. Something about that fascinated me. I took a three-month leave from Google and loss of pay. As you can imagine, my dad was not super pleased. Street performers, like those people who go around performing in small places and collect money in a hat. He said, “You took loss of pay with Google to do that?” He was horrified, but I did it. They traveled along the Ganges from the point where the river merges with the ocean to the point of origin. Spending those nearly two and a half months with them just traveling, watching them perform, watching them do their makeup rituals, and writing for them — the main theater chief would drive this truck. The actors would sleep in the back, the bed of the truck, as we traveled. Having that close experience with these actors and their lives was just such a powerful experience. It transformed me in ways that I wasn’t prepared for. I knew that’s what I wanted this character to be, an actor with a street performing group. That was the origin of the story.

Then there was Marc who, in that early draft, was just an American tourist with no historical association with India. Then I came out in my professor’s workshop. Then I basically discarded about eighty percent of the book and wrote it from scratch again because I had to change what the starting point was. I had to change everything because the character looks at the world through this lens of queer existence at this point. That was a major rewrite. In that part, like I said, the queer desire becomes a lens with which he looks at the world. The idea of safety has changed at that point. After my master’s, I did a PhD. With an undergraduate in computer science, didn’t know what academic writing was like, so I took a short break from my book to sort of acclimatize and then picked it up again. The later drafts really focused a lot on the prose and the writing at a sentence level. Once, also, I knew that it was a queer love story, I wanted Marc to have a history rooted in India. I started looking at the history of migrations. I discovered the history of Jewish migrations, the three big waves that came to India, one a very, very long time back, one in the sixteenth, the seventeenth century, and then of course, during World War II. The Southern Indian town of Cochin, where Marc’s family is from in the book, I went there. I got a research grant and went and spent three weeks there. The community was incredibly welcoming and very excited that I was writing the story set there. That research experience was very helpful because then I could really give Marc a history. Not all of it made it into the book, but just writing from that space of knowing was very helpful.

One fun fact about this book was the MFA draft — it was my MFA thesis, this novel, an old version of it. It was 180,000 words and close to 850 pages. Now it’s, of course, almost half that length. I remember when I went to my thesis defense, I didn’t want my committee to know it was that long, so I reduced the font size and reduced the margin and the paragraph spacing. Sabina, my prof, she was my thesis chair. When she walked into this meeting room, she waved that manuscript and said, “This is much more than 550 pages.” That’s what it condensed to. I basically broke my MFA system because after I graduated, they put a page length. They also specified all the criteria. It has to be double spaced and twelve-point font. I told Sabina, “I wonder how that happened.” She was like, “Yeah, I wonder how that happened.” It was quite an intense journey. I feel like me taking this journey of working on this book has changed me significantly. It’s changed my closest friendships for the best, in the best possible way. Almost all the characters in this book are fictional, with the exception of Su, the best friend. She’s based on my best friend, who’s also called Su. She was my first friend I came out to. She was completely embracing me without any questions, any judgement.

Zibby: What a story. Tell me why you decided to get a PhD.

Shastri: I was working in tech. Google had given me a three-year sabbatical. They said I could finish my MFA and come back. I really loved teaching, and so I decided to not do that and stay in academia. I realized a PhD would really help me stay in academia but also stay in the US with an F-1 student visa. When I was in the master’s program, I started sitting in on various classes in the humanities. I was drawn to this one class in comparative literature, which was a class on refugee studies. I really liked the professor, Moira Inghilleri. When I took her class, I knew that’s what I wanted to focus on. When I went and told her my interest in doing the PhD program, she introduced me to multiple lenses in which you can look at the issues that refugees face migrating into the country. I discovered refugee art, the art that refugees who have migrated from East to the West use, that sort of postcolonial language. Then I knew that would be my dissertation topic even before I started my PhD. It started with the intent of wanting to stay in the US and teach because I love teaching. Then when I discovered this project about contemporary refugee art, I just knew that’s what I wanted to work with.

Zibby: Wow. Now do you teach classes on refugee art?

Shastri: I do. Once I was to the end of my PhD program, Moira, my prof, and I, we co-taught a class in migration and the communities it forms. Oftentimes, we look at migration, refugees especially, they end up leaving old communities, but they also forge new communities in their new country. That class focuses on literature and art that talks about that. I was teaching in Providence until this fall. Starting spring, I just got a job with Michigan State where I’ll be teaching creative writing and film. I definitely intend bringing refugee writing into those classes.

Zibby: That’s wonderful. Busy. You have a book coming out, a new job. This is great. Very exciting. What are the plans for bringing the book into the world? Are you touring everywhere? What are you excited about?

Shastri: The book is coming out on July 11th. There’s a book launch event on July 14th at Books Are Magic, which I’m so excited about because it’s one of my favorite bookstores. I remember when the bookshop opened, I went from — I was in Amherst, Massachusetts. I went to Books Are Magic exclusively to — I went to Brooklyn just to go to that bookshop, which is the nerdiest thing to do, but it’s what I did. Emma Straub, the writer who owns that bookshop, she just cycled into the bookshop. I completely fanboyed. I said, “I made this trip only for this bookshop.” She was very sweet. She sent me home with a bunch of free books and a free tote bag. It feels like a full circle that my first event is there. I’m doing that. Then I’m doing an event in Provincetown at the Provincetown bookstore. Then I’m doing something in Cambridge on July 24th. I’m doing an event at the Harvard Book Store there. Those will be summer, East Coast. Oh, and then one in the Mark Twain House in Hartford. That would bring the summer to the end. In the fall, I’ll be doing a few events in the Midwest since I’ll be based out of Michigan. Then hopefully, the winter and the spring, we’ll look at the West Coast. Hopefully, the book does well, and I can still do those events.

Zibby: Wonderful. That’s great.

Shastri: Flatiron Books has been so wonderful to me. They’ve just been so supportive and really excited. My editor, Caroline Bleeke, from the time she picked up the book to now, she’s just been such a great champion for the book, and my publicist as well, this queer and really champions queer stories. It’s such a dream come true for me as a debut novelist to work with such a wonderful team.

Zibby: That’s great. I love hearing stories like that. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Shastri: Something I’ve discovered, it’s important to be receptive to be feedback. At the same time, while you receive feedback, also be clear about your vision for the story. It’s maintaining the delicate balance of having clarity of what you want your story to be. What are the core values of your writing? If you end up getting feedback that doesn’t align with your core values, you need not embrace it. If you’re open-minded, you will get feedback that completely changes your story, as it did in my case. Sometimes I’ve had really unhelpful feedback. Somebody read my story, early draft — the scene where Shagun is having food with his parents on the kitchen floor, he just lashed out at me and said, “Why do you have to exoticize your own culture? Why do you have to show people sitting on the floor and eating with their hands? Why can’t you show Indians going to offices and standing around a water fountain and talking?” I said, “Those are not mutually exclusive realities. This is not exotic.” Even now when I go back to India, it’s such a question of comfort. My mom and I still sit on the floor and eat because it feels familiar. It’s intimate. When I was working for Google, I would then get up and go and stand at the water fountain and talk to my colleagues. I think just making sure that you are open to feedback but also know what your core values are and keeping feedback that works for you and letting the rest go.

Zibby: Excellent. That’s excellent advice. Wonderful. Do you think there’ll be more books in your future? Short stories? Books? What are you up to?

Shastri: My agent, Chris, he’s right now trying to place a few of my short stories in different literary journals. I am working on my second novel. As it’s hitting the world, I’m doing everything I can to make sure that it reaches as many readers as possible. There’s only so much control I have. I don’t want to obsess over it. It’s that very ideology of, do the work, and then let go, which I’m trying to embrace. Something that’s helping me with that is working on a completely different project. For me, longer projects that I work on every single day allow me to have that emotional relationship with the work that I can go back to every morning and write. I’m working on my second novel now.

Zibby: Good for you. Can you share anything about it, or not really?

Shastri: I can because I’ve already pitched it to my agent. He liked it. It’s really different from this book, but it has the same themes of found family and community. It’s a fantasy novel. It’s set in this future where America’s white population has become the minority. There’s a power at that point. To fix that, they decide to offer a political asylum to vampires. The vampires are coming in through Ellis Island. They’re being injected with this serum which takes away their hunting instinct. It follows this one Irish vampire to begin with. Then there are these blood markets that open up where vampires can go buy blood. It also has the perspective of this guy who becomes his boyfriend who’s a Kashmiri doctor. At this point in the future, Kashmir has fallen, so there are a lot of Kashmiri refugees in the US. The US is not giving them refugee and asylum status. They’re just undocumented. It follows these two communities, the undocumented Kashmiris and the vampires who are now immigrating, and the kind of friendships and tensions that are forged between them.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. Vampire blood market, you never know what’s going to come out of people’s mouth. Who knows? People’s minds, people’s fingertips, it’s amazing. Good luck with that. Congratulations on your book, The Sea Elephants. Beautiful. So amazing. Congratulations. Wishing you all the best.

Shastri: Thank you so much. Thank you for talking to me. This was amazing.

Zibby: It was a joy. Thank you. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

THE SEA ELEPHANTS by Shastri Akella

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