The year was 2013 and Bryant Lecturer Shastri Akella, Ph.D., had just joined a street theater troupe in India. He had approached the group to inquire about volunteering and traveling with them and was allowed to join — as long as he contributed in some way.
As someone who worked for Google at the time and held an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, Akella also had a knack for writing. He started reinventing myths for the troupe by setting them in contemporary times or telling stories from the point of view of minority characters. During the three months he spent with the group, Akella noted that street performance life was transient; however, the shared stories were concrete and a steady constant while everything around performers changed.
Akella’s experiences gave him an inside look at how street theater performances worked and informed his first novel, The Sea Elephants. He wanted to write a story about a character who was a bit of a shapeshifter and slipped in and out of personas, but he didn’t know how he would pull it off until he discovered the troupe. The search for a story led him to the troupe and working with them got him to put pen to paper. This queer coming-of-age novel will be published by Macmillan on July 11.
Set in 1990s India, The Sea Elephants follows Shagun, a young queer man, who runs away from home after his father’s threat to send him to conversion therapy. He joins a street theater troupe where he performs the Hindu myths of his childhood and, as he travels from place to place, he meets a Jewish migrant photographer and the two fall in love. However, fear and guilt seem to hold Shagun back from claiming his own happiness.
“The story brings in a lot of mythology because myth is so universal. So many amazing stories are based on Greek mythology and Shakespeare’s plays, and I try to do that by weaving Hindu mythology into the narrative,” says Akella, who is part of Bryant’s Department of English and Cultural Studies and teaches classes in creative writing, film, and literature.
Raised in India on the stories his grandmother would tell him, Akella says that Hindu mythology includes many transgender and gender-fluid characters. Instead of explaining the myths, Akella simply lets Shagun perform them with the troupe so people can read into them on their own.
Akella started writing The Sea Elephants in 2014 and signed his publishing contract with Macmillan Publishers in 2021. As someone who learned English as a third language, Akella was told he shouldn’t try for one of America’s biggest publishing names. However, he was determined and succeeded.
The book’s themes include found family, the power of storytelling, and what it means to be queer. His favorite part of writing the book was creating the performances and the action scenes where Shagun alludes law enforcement and disguises himself.
His book is already garnering advanced praise.
“By turns tender and brutal, The Sea Elephants navigates the tumultuous waters of grief, guilt, and love with grace and precision. Akella has written an exquisite novel destined to be a classic,” says Eric Nguyen, author of Things We Lost to the Water.
The Sea Elephants is classified as realistic fiction and is intended for high schoolers and beyond, as the book includes adult themes. Akella is now writing a horror fantasy novel involving vampires who immigrate to the United States. He has also published fiction and creative nonfiction works in literary journals, such as the Fairy Tale Review, Guernica, The Masters Review, Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, PANK, The Common, and World Literature Review.
Copies of The Sea Elephants can be preordered through Macmillan.