Shastri Akella’s first novel, The Sea Elephants, begins with these lines: “My father left the country the year my sisters were born. He returned six months after I watched them drown in the Bay of Bengal.”
Akella, who was born and raised in a small Indian town — as is the main character of his book — is a writing fellow this winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He’ll give a reading from his work on Saturday along with poet Eduardo Martinez-Leyva. His novel has been picked up by Flatiron Press and will be published some time next spring. While he’s been here, he’s been putting final touches on it with his editor and has also been working on a second novel.
Over tea in his homey apartment at FAWC, Akella explains how The Sea Elephants, which he has been writing and re-writing for eight years, both reflects and has reshaped his life. It’s not exactly autobiographical, he says, but it has the same “emotional architecture. I took those emotions and turned them into a reality very different from mine. Yes, we used to live by the coast. I do have two sisters, but they are still alive. Shagun, the main character, pushes back from his dad a lot more than I did.”
Shagun’s feelings of guilt over the death of his sisters follow him through the story. “When you’re experiencing something traumatic, in the moment, it’s hard to realize what’s actually happening,” Akella says. “I don’t think you can access trauma. It keeps coming back in little fractured pieces.”
Shagun, who is the first-person narrator of the book, joins an all-male street theater troupe to get out of his small-town existence. He refuses to go through with an arranged marriage. “When he performs female characters,” Akella says, “he realizes he likes it. He likes feminine things. A key scene in the novel is told by a female puppet, a mythic transgender character. When Shagun performs the character, the narration switches to that character’s voice, from past tense to present tense.”
While he’s with the troupe, Shagun meets a Jewish-American emigrant and they fall in love. When Akella first began writing this tale many years ago, it was just a short story, and the relationship between the two men was platonic. “In the early versions, they really like each other but not much happens,” he says. “They weren’t physical.”
But Akella, like Shagun, has evolved quite a bit in his 38 years. He has changed careers, moved abroad, and come out.
“I got my undergraduate degree in computer science in India,” he says. “An entry-level job at Google led me to Hyderabad and New Delhi.” He eventually transferred to Dublin, Ireland. He needed to get away.
“India has such a repressed and homophobic culture,” Akella says. “At the time, there was a lot of pressure for me to have an arranged marriage. I didn’t know I was gay. I thought I was asexual. I didn’t know that being attracted to men was an option.”
Once in Dublin, he started writing in his spare time, and then he transferred to San Francisco in 2011. He was doing advertising for Google and had a team reporting to him. But the urge to write stories overtook him, and he started looking into the possibility of going for an M.F.A.
“I got into the program at UMass Amherst,” Akella says. “I wanted to work with this professor, Sabina Murray. I had read a couple of her novels and really liked them. I started turning my story of the street performer and his Jewish friend into a novel. I submitted 60 pages to her in a workshop, and she said, in class, ‘This is dying to be a gay love story. Why won’t you let it be one?’
“I was shocked,” Akella continues. “Over the course of a few sessions of therapy, I started to accept the fact that I am gay.”
And so, The Sea Elephants became a gay love story. “One of the reasons I wanted to write was to express who I was, but another was a tradition of storytelling,” Akella says. The stories told by the theater troupe in the novel, and shared by Shagun and his sisters, come from Hindu mythology. “Hinduism as a religion is homophobic,” he says. “But I love the mythology. I thought, why do I have to choose? It lends itself to a queer reading.”
After getting his M.F.A., Akella decided to pursue a Ph.D. in comparative literature at UMass Amherst, because, he says, “I love teaching.” It took him another five years to complete the degree, and he landed a job teaching creative writing at the nearby prep school Deerfield Academy. He left that to take the fellowship in Provincetown.
“My second novel, which I’m working on now, is about a South Asian man in an arranged marriage from childhood,” Akella says. “He comes to the U.S. and falls in love with a Ukrainian man, a classmate. He wants to come out to his wife, but she was disfigured in the 1984 Bhopal gas crisis, and he’s afraid she’ll think that’s the reason. So, he breaks up with the boyfriend. They meet again in the context of ACT UP, which brings them together.”
Akella’s dissertation was about migrant and refugee art. The mindset of stateless people and the ripple effects of childhood trauma are essential parts of his writing. As he talks about his novels at the work center, though, the upheaval of the past seems to be behind him.
“My dad and I, we had our issues,” he says. “But we made our peace. When I told him that I sold my book, he had been waiting to hear that: ‘I don’t have anything else to worry about in this life,’ he said. He passed away three weeks later.”
The event: A reading by Fine Arts Work Center writing fellows Shastri Akella and Eduardo Martinez-Leyva
The time: Saturday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
The place: Via Zoom at fawc.org; in person by invitation only
The cost: Free