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Berkeley Talks: ‘Wave’ memoirist on writing about unimaginable loss

"I'm an accidental writer ... I was writing to make sense of, firstly, what had happened," said Sonali Deraniyagala, whose family died in a 2004 tsunami while on vacation in Sri Lanka.

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Sonali Deraniyagala and Ramona Naddaff talk on stage for a UC Berkeley event
Sonali Deraniyagala (right), author of the 2013 memoir Wave, joined in conversation with Ramona Naddaff (left), UC Berkeley associate professor of rhetoric and founding director of Art of Writing, in April 2024.

Emily Thompson for UC Berkeley

In 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala was on vacation with her family on the coast of Sri Lanka when a tsunami struck the South Asian island. It killed her husband, their two sons and her parents, leaving Deraniyagala alone in a reality she couldn’t comprehend. 

In Berkeley Talks episode 201, Deraniyagala discusses her all-consuming grief in the aftermath of the tragedy and the process of writing about it in her 2013 memoir, Wave.

“Wave was the wave was the wave,” said Deraniyagala, who spoke in April 2024 at an event for Art of Writing, a program of UC Berkeley’s Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities. “What mattered was the loss. It could have been a tree. It just happened to be the wave. I wasn’t that interested in how it happened. It was more this otherworldly situation where I had a life, I didn’t have a life, and it took 10 minutes between the two.

“So that I was trying to figure out, and I think the whole book Wave was trying to: Everything you know vanishes in an instant, literally in an instant, with no warning. … I experienced something that I didn’t have words for. I didn’t know what was happening when it was happening, which is why I was sure I was dreaming.”

Deraniyagala, an economist who teaches at the University of London and Columbia University, described herself as “an accidental writer.” She said her initial goal, at the urging of her therapist, was to write for herself in attempt to make sense of a loss that “one can’t write easily or put into sentences or find words for,” she told Ramona Naddaff, Berkeley associate professor of rhetoric and founding director of Art of Writing, whom Deraniyagala joined in conversation for the event. 

But in the painstaking process of writing and rewriting, Deraniyagala found her voice. And after eight years, Wave was published. It became a New York Times bestseller and won the PEN Ackerley Prize in 2013.

Watch a video of the April 10 conversation, followed by a Q&A with the audience.

Learn more about the Townsend Center for the Humanities’ Art of Writing program.