A novel of resources and exploitation, of protest and compromise, of dreams and sacrifice, Rachel Heng‘s The Great Reclamation follows Ah Boon from boyhood—when his discovery of plentiful fish around mysterious islands shores up his fishing village—through World War II, Japanese occupation, British colonialism, revolution, and into the making of modern Singapore. Throughout, Heng casts a wide net, pulling in richly-drawn, thoughtfully-imagined characters who give tender shape to Ah Boon’s journey.
In a glowing, starred review, Kirkus says The Great Reclamation is “ like a drop of rain that holds the reflection of the world, crystalline and beautiful.” Publishers Weekly says the novel is “an epic undertaking, not to be missed.” We are thrilled Rachel had time to answers questions about The Great Reclamation and her writing process.
Susan Donovan Bernhard: Set against “tangled webs of patriotism and nationalist alliances” that spans decades, The Great Reclamation is a coming-of-age and love story for Ah Boon and his childhood friend Siok Mei but also for Singapore itself, its complex history and politics, and literally shifting landscape. Can you talk about what came first as you drafted this novel?
Rachel Heng: The landscape came to me first. Often place and time does, the feeling of a specific world. In this case especially, because I wanted to write about the mud and trees and the sea, the reality that Singapore—despite all its high rises and clean streets and concrete highways, its reputation as being somewhat sterile and manmade—is in fact a tropical place, with all the heat, humidity and mutability of a city in contention with its unruly climate. Ah Boon, Siok Mei and the other characters emerged later, gradually unfolding as I followed the different threads of the story. But their individual arcs are all threaded through the larger arc of the land itself, how it comes under assault in various ways, changes and develops in spite of itself.
At the beginning of the novel, Ah Boon is awaiting the return of his father and other fishermen from his kampong who have gone to explore mysterious islands and the bountiful fish surrounding them. As Ah Boon reflects on what he knows of Singapore, its history, and his family’s existence there, you write, “Ah Boon hoarded these facts carefully. He had the sense that it was important to remember things.” Can you talk about your sense of history and what was important to you as you were crafting The Great Reclamation?
Toni Morrison, in her essay, “The Source of Self-Regard,” says of writing Beloved: “The question being, how to elicit critical thinking and draw out some honest art form from the silences and the distortions and the evasions that are in the history as received… What I needed was imagination to shore up the facts, the data, and not be overwhelmed by them. Imagination that personalized information, made it intimate, but didn’t offer itself as a substitute.” I keep that quote close when writing anything that draws from history or really anything from real life. I spent about a year just reading books and articles, listening to oral history interviews, digging up archival photos, government documents and newspaper clippings. Then when I was actually writing, it was a strange kind of double think—both remembering and forgetting everything I’d learnt, in order to fully inhabit the characters and focus on the feeling, the emotional truth, of their reality rather than the facts. And in revision, going back to the research or doing new research to figure out some other piece that I didn’t quite understand—e.g. construction equipment or what jobs looked like in the city vs. rural areas—then writing again, forgetting again. Over and over.
The Great Reclamation refers to the government term for the massive land-building project undertaken in post-WWII Singapore. Yet “reclamation” feels like the wrong word. Reclaiming the land from the sea? Maybe “imposition” would have been better. And now, with climate change threatening coastlines worldwide, one can’t help but wonder whether the sea might ultimately have something to say about it. That juxtaposition of nature versus progress is prevalent throughout the novel. Why was that of particular importance to you?
I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s an interesting term, isn’t it? So ambitious, so idealistic, so hubristic, and eventually, violent, too. How do you reclaim something that was never yours to begin with, that belongs to no one, really? It gets at the way that words have so much euphemistic power to describe and reshape reality. I love what you said about the sea eventually having something to say about that. When I originally conceived of this book, I wanted it to go right up to the present day, with reclaimed land being eroded by the sea, as parts of it along the coast currently is. Perhaps even into the future, when the land is swallowed entirely.
So you envisioned a story even broader than the ambitious one you tackled. Given that your debut novel The Suicide Club was set in a futuristic New York, it makes sense that you might have been compelled to project into a near future again. Now, I’m curious—did you have a draft that went further? In your acknowledgements, you credit your literary agent with telling you to “make the book bigger than it was.” Did you scale back to dig deeper?
I never had a draft that went further. When I was writing the first draft, I could feel the story going deeper and wider in the existing time periods than I’d planned, and I got to 130k words and reached a natural ending point. I also knew I wanted the next draft to expand on what was already there, so as you say, I decided not to go on into the future in order to dig deeper into the past. As for my agent’s advice, this was so crucial for me. I was querying agents at the time and most expressed (reasonable) doubt about the length of the book; they said it would have to be condensed at least a little. Many people suggested cutting the minor characters’ perspectives, since they weren’t central to the main arc of the story, but I really didn’t want to do that. When I spoke to Julie, who would eventually become my agent, all she said was that I should make it bigger, that she wanted more of each character’s story. I don’t think she was asking for the book to be longer—and indeed, later on she gave me suggestions on how to condense—but she thought I should get deeper into each character before deciding what to cut. This was one of the most important pieces of writing advice that I’ve ever received. Often when something feels too long, the logical solution can be to cut. But perhaps it feels too long because what’s there isn’t working as hard as it can be. And if you deepen and expand and then cut, even if the next draft is the exact same length, it’ll feel richer and pacier than what was there before. This can feel painful because it can seem like you’re only producing material to then throw it out, but that’s the nature of revision. I do this now with all my writing, even my short stories.
Ah Boon has a complicated relationship with the sea “balanced on the knifepoint between joy and terror.” The sea and the fish around the islands respond to war as if the planet senses violence. You write, “Those were the disappearing years. Homes, belief systems, entire governments, food, people one dearly loved…” This intertwining between politics and the natural world was so fraught. Another character talks about this in religious terms, how man was given dominion over nature. So conquer or be conquered? Is there a possibility for balance?
I think the question is whether human beings are capable of escaping these hierarchies of power at all, or whether the imposition of will, the desire to control will always steer the course. In the case of Singapore, particularly this period of Singapore’s history, I think the decision was made to conquer, in more ways than one. There was a sense that the world was a violent and merciless place, what with the war, poverty, colonialism. And if we did not assert ourselves as a nation, take control of our destiny, so to speak, we would continue to be at the mercy of those forces. Which maybe is how it always begins.
As adults, Siok Mei is fervently political but Ah Boon can’t bring himself to care deeply about any of it beyond his feelings for Mei. And villagers often have no interest in “political squabbling.” That sense of righteousness and obligation was balanced so well with characters simply trying to get by and respond to their own situations. It made me think about the United States in 2023, how much there is to fight for, to rage about. How do you know which fights are worth fighting?
I think it’s something every person living in a society has to grapple with, be it in 1940s Singapore or 2023 United States or anywhere else. We all have different obligations—to ourselves, family, to partners, community, country, indeed, to our planet—and are often torn between these competing responsibilities. What I wanted to show in the novel was exactly what you point out, that each character makes their own choices based on the realities of their situation. Even Siok Mei, who is fiercely idealistic, did not come to that choice in a vacuum or out of some inherently superior moral fibre, though she is certainly principled. She came to that choice under the influence of her family, the ideals of her parents, the tragic loss of them. What I wanted to explore in the novel is the ways in which the people around us shape our values and choices, and how that process can be an unpredictable and surprising one.
Siok Mei, Ah Boon, Natalie, the Gah Men—all grapple with what is “best” for their families and for Singapore itself. Their stories felt universal—good people trying to figure out what is “right.” As universal as their stories are, is there ever a correct answer when the hunger for power and the thirst for progress are part of the equation?
That question could be the tagline for the novel! And if I could answer it, I would perhaps be a journalist or politician rather than a fiction writer. I think novels don’t offer answers, and I certainly wasn’t trying to impose one when I wrote this. I believe that the work of a novel is to articulate a set of questions with as much clarity, complexity and contradiction as possible, and that those questions evolve as the novel takes shape. Meaning unfolds within that space of questioning.
And you did that so beautifully. I sighed audibly in many parts! I was talking about your novel with some writer friends, praising how you managed to present all these angles on complex issues with humanity and understanding. In the chapter when Ah Boon and his father lead other fishermen to the mysterious islands, you masterfully shift the narrative lens in and out. You signal that these moments are important for Ah Boon, what he will remember later in his life, and so it becomes a moment for the reader as well. When you were at the very last revisions before turning in this novel, did you know what these critical moments would be?
Thank you! Those moments were actually organic and came about as I was writing those chapters, perhaps not in the first draft, but quite early on—maybe the second or third. From the very beginning of the writing process I knew the narrative voice would have an omniscience to it, a telescoping quality that would allow it to zoom in and out with ease. I once had the good fortune to take a workshop with Edward P. Jones, who is the master of this in The Known World, and will never forget him saying that a character’s life is a line, and as writers we can jump to any point in that line at any point of the narrative. I wanted to evoke that density and circularity of time in the writing of this book.
I returned to the first page of the novel over and over, which starts, “Decades later, the kampong would trace it all back to this very hour, waves draining the light from this slim, hungry moon.” It’s a signal that we will learn about the entire fishing village and the people who live there. Did you struggle with point of view decisions at all? When in your writing process was your first page cemented as the first page of The Great Reclamation?
I wanted, from the very beginning, for the novel to feel like a tapestry of perspectives. While it focuses on Ah Boon as the central character, it is very much the story of an entire community and country. The competing perspectives and interests were very important for me to include. I think I wrote that first section, with the omniscient foretelling, at the start of my second draft. It originally opened just with Ah Boon in the boat with Pa and Hia, and reading that draft, I had the sense that it didn’t adequately prepare the reader for the breadth of perspectives, and that the point of view shifts that came later were a little jarring. So I wrote that short section that ended up as the opening, which announces the scope of the story upfront.
My friend and fellow bookseller Audrey Huang and I are both in awe of the details you included. Audrey wants to know: Was there anything you discovered in your research that shocked you?
Shocked, no. I think I knew a lot of the stories already, so the actual details were more of a filling in rather than revelation. But there were specific details that stayed with me. I remember seeing pictures of, amongst the items found in the mass graves of the Chinese men killed in Sook Ching, a pair of wire-framed spectacles, a wallet, rings, false teeth. And in the video testimony of a man who was forced to move from his home (this was much later, in the 70s or 80s, and he lived on an island off the coast of Singapore), seeing that when he was asked about what it was like to leave, the way his mouth gaped silently, his eyes squeezed shut. So much anguish, and he couldn’t cry, maybe didn’t know how to cry.
I was reminded of two novels especially as I was reading yours. One, Life of Pi, and the second, Pachinko. Can you talk about what writers have influenced you? What other novels or works of nonfiction do you see The Great Reclamation in conversation with?
Edward P. Jones’ The Known World was definitely a huge influence for me, in terms of how he handles history and time. Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man With The Compound Eyes is quite a different book than mine, but was a big inspiration in its strangeness, how it portrayed land and environmental degradation. Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency was also a big inspiration as a novel that delves into this moment in Singapore’s history with great nuance and tenderness. Other books I read and loved while writing this book: Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin of a Lion and Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things, all of which blend history and myth, and deal with industrialization and colonialism in interesting ways.
Rachel Heng is the author of the novels The Great Reclamation (Riverhead, 2023)—named an April 2023 Indie Next Pick and a Most Anticipated Book by TIME Magazine, Washington Post, Oprah Daily and others—and Suicide Club (Henry Holt/Sceptre, 2018), which was a national bestseller in Singapore and has been translated into 10 languages. Born and raised in Singapore, Rachel received her BA in Comparative Literature & Society from Columbia University and her MFA in Fiction and Playwriting from UT Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University.