Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, she studied economics at Cambridge University and has a doctorate from the University of Oxford. She is on the faculty of the Department of Economics at SOAS, University of London and is a research scholar at Columbia University, New York City. She lives in New York City, and London.
She married economist Stephen Lissenburgh, and while on vacation at Sri Lanka's Yala National Park in December 2004, she lost her two sons, her husband, and her parents in the Indian Ocean tsunami. The tsunami carried her two miles inland and she was able to survive by clinging to a tree branch.
Deraniyagala later relocated to New York where she became a visiting research scholar at Columbia University. Her 2013 memoir, Wave, recounts her experiences in the tsunami and the progression of her grief in the ensuing years. It was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Autobiography) and won the PEN Ackerley Prize 2013. This book is currently used as a prose passage in the education system (O/Level) for English Literature in Sri Lanka.
- Mother who lost everyone, The Evening Standart, 11 Jan 2005 by Lech Mintowt-Czyz
- Neary, Lynn (5 March 2013). "'Wave' Tells A True Story Of Survival And Loss In The 2004 Tsunami". NPR.
- Sonali Deraniyagala, Biography, retrieved 29 October 2014
- Cole, Teju (28 March 2013). "A Better Quality of Agony". The New Yorker.
- Adams, Tim (9 March 2013). "The tsunami survivor who lost her whole family". The Guardian.
- Strayed, Cheryl (22 March 2013). "Washed Away". The New York Times.
- Kirsten Reach (January 14, 2014). "NBCC finalists announced". Melville House Publishing. Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- "Announcing the National Book Critics Awards Finalists for Publishing Year 2013". National Book Critics Circle. January 14, 2014. Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- Ziemer, Julia. "Sonali Deraniyagala wins PEN/Ackerley Prize 2014". Retrieved 30 June 2015.
- Interview with Fiona Shaw, The Observer, 3 March 2019.