"By writing, I was able to tolerate remembering": A Conversation with Sonali Deraniyagala

Dear Reader,

“I’ve been walking around with this book in me since I finished reading it in manuscript form, months ago. Pressing it on friends who ask what to read next, who send stunned e-mails in return; they can’t stop thinking about this story either – the unwinding of the deeply intimate, the un-scrolling of personal history. As beautifully written as it is raw, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave is an impossible book to forget because it exists on the razor’s edge between before and after.”  There’s more at Everyday Ebook.

Sonali Deraniyagala discusses how what started as writing for herself (at her therapist’s suggestion) turned into writing a memoir, her fear of details, and how being out in the wilderness, in “vast and wild places” has helped her, among other things, with Discover Great New Writers.

When and why did you decide to write Wave? Can you talk about the process of writing the book?

I didn’t set out to write a book. I began writing almost accidentally, a couple of years after the tsunami. It was my therapist, Mark Epstein, who suggested that I write and persuaded me to keep writing. Of course I protested—rather childishly—that it was a silly idea. I wanted to die, or at least lie around in a stupor, not write. But the writing drew me in. It became survival, my reason to live.

At first I wrote for myself, as a way of finding out what happened to me when I was in that wave. The experience of being in it was so strange and bewildering, and I wrote a few pages to explore and unravel my memory of it. The details that came to me were so startling—I remembered seeing a flock of storks flying above me when I was in the chaos of the water, and for a moment forgetting what was happening to me because I was trying to figure out what types of storks they were. Then over time, more importantly, I wrote to recapture (again mostly for myself) our life before the wave.

Nothing was real to me in those early years after the wave—not the wave, not my life before it, not my family. The fact that my entire life vanished in an instant in that water was what made it all so unreal, I thought. “Did they really ever exist?” I would wonder about my children. Then as I wrote, my family began to emerge as real; I rediscovered them. And I was able to allow myself to feel them and to reenter our life, the blissful, everyday moments of it. This was addictive and kept me writing. Writing turned out to be a way of being with my family.

You manage to bring your boys, your husband, and your parents so beautifully to life in these pages through the smallest details you share about them—their passions and habits, their favorite expressions, meals, books, music. Yet it is exactly these sorts of details you spent many years hiding from. You talk very movingly about your fear of details and your worry that the more you remember the more inconsolable you will be. When did that feeling start to shift?

For a long while after the wave I did want to wipe all details of them from my mind. I thought I could not possibly tolerate remembering. But as I began to expose myself to our life—by going back to our home in London, to my parents home in Colombo, and so on—I could feel that my memories brought me joy. An agonizing joy, sometimes. By writing, I was able to tolerate remembering. It also gave me a secondary purpose, as I focused on finding the words for all I remembered.

My fear of detail never really went away, though. I am still wary. When I was writing, I could not, at any one time, hold the whole truth of my loss. At first I wrote only about my children, allowing in memories of them mainly. Then, I looked more at Steve. He and I knew each other since we were eighteen, and his thoughts and his expressions and his humor were always with me, and I think writing about him also allowed me to channel his voice. Later, I began to bring my parents close—the warmth and bustle of their home, the endless gossip and laughter of my mother and her sisters, quiet conversations with my father in the calm of his library, the smell of his cigars.

You are incredibly frank about your grief, especially in those first months after the tsunami—from turning to drugs and alcohol, to thoughts of suicide, to your going mad with grief and tormenting the family who eventually moved into your parents home. How difficult is it to share such raw emotions?

I found it much easier to describe the rampaging grief of those early months than to explore the deliciously happy, joyous moments of our life, like remembering my five-year- old son licking cake mix from a wooden spoon while wearing his pink tutu.

When I was writing about tormenting that poor family who rented my parents home, I found myself sometimes wishing I could go back to that time and do it again. Drunkenly bashing on their gate in the wee hours, in that period of being and acting out of control, was in many ways easier than feeling my loss more fully, as I try to do now.

You go back to Yala regularly. What have those visits meant to you over the years?

At first I went back to try make sense of the wave. It really happened? The sea came for us? Here ? When I go back now, I see how the ruins of the hotel where we stayed are being overtaken by the surrounding jungle. The inexorable force of nature is still declaring itself there, and this makes me feel very connected to my family.

It was an act of nature that took the lives of your husband, sons, and parents. And yet, throughout the book you seem to find some solace in nature, to feel a particular closeness to your memories brought on by its presence. Why do you think that is?

Yes, I’ve sought out nature, vast and wild places in particular, in these past years. For one thing, the wildness of landscapes like the unearthly Swedish sub-Arctic matched my grief, I think, and I found relief in that. Also, in the vastness of some places like the Montana Rockies, I could make room for myself to get closer to the truth of what happened. My defenses dropped away. This allowed me not only to hold the reality of my loss, but also to bring back the delight and joy of my family.

Your sense of shame, that you were cursed, is a recurring emotion throughout Wave, that somehow you were responsible for bringing harm to your family, for not protecting them. Have you reached a place where you don’t in some way hold yourself responsible for what happened?

Holding myself responsible is a much shallower emotion, I think, than feeling cursed and doomed. Now I can reason with myself and know that I was not responsible. But the shame of being cursed and being tainted by this enormous loss, I know is irrational, but it’s deeper and persists. I do find it mysterious, it is probably partly cultural. Growing up in Sri Lanka, I’d often hear of people being referred to as moosala, “ill-fated,” in a way that can rub off on others.

At one point you write: “I cringe to be bereft in a way that cannot be imagined.” Was writing this book in some ways your attempt to make what happened to you something that can indeed be imagined?

I do still cringe. But, from the reactions to my book from those who have experienced loss, I am also learning that every loss is unimaginable.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading Wave?
That love never dies.

Books can have the power to be enormously healing. This will be one of them. Are there books that have been especially meaningful to you throughout your life?

After the wave I was terrified of books because I was terrified of everything from my “old life.” Then about a year later I began reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and I clung to that book at terrible times. While the book is about many types of loss, it was the nature writing and the descriptions of that mighty mountainous landscape that worked for me. It really soothed me. Also, I’d been to Nepal on work many times, and Steve and the kids came along once, too. When I tried to show Vikram, our older son, a view of Everest from the plane, he kept asking Steve if they could (again) go see the outside of the Arsenal football stadium when we got home! Reading The Snow Leopard brought back that memory, and could I peek at it, then distract myself with the book.

Who have you discovered lately?

I read After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld recently and loved it. A mesmerizing book about the trauma of war.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.