Tracing the Arc of Singapore’s Coming of Age through a Love Story
In Rachel Heng's novel "The Great Reclamation," a young kampong boy grows up during the brink of independence and change
Rachel Heng’s sophomore novel is a sprawling, scrupulously researched marvel. At once a coming-of-age love story and a tale of political turmoil that takes readers through decades of Singaporean history, The Great Reclamation follows its smart but shy protagonist, Ah Boon, from childhood into adulthood, as he falls in love, makes his way beyond the small kampong where he was born, and finally begins to define for himself the man he wants to be—alongside his country, a nation desperate to determine its own character, to assert itself after years of British colonial rule. Through the particular details of Ah Boon’s own life, of the spaces he inhabits, and of the characters who inhabit them with him, Heng investigates how the interwoven legacies of war, colonialism, and nationalism have shaped her homeland.
The language in The Great Reclamation is gorgeous, too. Lush and evocative, Heng’s sentences render every setting and each scene with vivid intensity. As a result, despite being nearly five hundred pages in length, this epic never feels like a slog; rather, we readers become so invested in the world of Ah Boon, in learning what challenge he’ll face next and how he’ll choose to navigate it, that it’s nearly impossible to put the book down.
I corresponded with Heng in writing, over a few weeks just after the New Year, about how she approached this ambitious endeavor. We discussed balancing research with story when writing historical fiction, the literature and art that was swirling in Heng’s mind while she worked on the book, how becoming a mother has only deepened her dedication to writing, and more.
Marisa Siegel: When did you start writing The Great Reclamation? Can you tell me a bit about how this book came to be?
Rachel Heng: I had been interested in writing about the massive land reclamation project that reshaped the eastern coast of Singapore for many years, and started researching it properly in 2017. The making of land from sea seemed like the perfect metaphor for so much of Singaporean identity and culture to me; a kind of literal nation building that is incredible, ambitious, but also in a way, violent.
MS: Did working on this project change your personal relationship to Singapore in any way?
RH: I don’t think it really changed it, but I feel immensely glad and grateful I got to spend these years researching, learning, and thinking about Singapore’s history, particularly that period which created the country that I grew up in and experienced so intimately.
MS: How was the experience of writing your second novel different from, and similar to, writing your debut novel, Suicide Club? The two books seem in many ways to be worlds apart, though I love them both so much!
RH: It was very different. I wrote Suicide Club while working a demanding full time job, getting up early before going to work to steal time to write. I hadn’t studied creative writing in undergrad, and didn’t even know what an MFA was at that point. I didn’t know if I could finish writing a book. So, it felt a lot like groping around in the dark, like an act of faith—just pushing forward to finish it.
Though of course I had dreams, I didn’t have expectations for Suicide Club to be published or read. There was a freedom to that. I wrote it quite quickly, and it sold extremely quickly (though I didn’t know at the time that this was unusual). I started the first draft in late 2015 and it had sold to publishers by early 2017.
When I wrote The Great Reclamation, on the other hand, I was in an MFA program at the Michener Center. I was taking workshops and studying with amazing teachers like Elizabeth McCracken. My MFA offered generous funding and required no teaching, so I was able to dedicate myself full time to writing.
Still, it took me much longer to write The Great Reclamation. Part of it was research—that took a full year alone, just to get enough background knowledge to even start writing. The other part of it was wanting to take my time. With the gift of space and funding to work on this book, I wanted to grow it slowly, to explore different possibilities for it, to write and rewrite and rewrite again. It was no longer a question of whether I could finish a book, but whether I could write a book that was large and sprawling, that could contain all the questions, ideas, and emotions I had in mind, but that was still powerful and cohesive.
MS: You certainly accomplished that! Was there a particular character in the novel who you felt closest to, or who came to you most easily?
RH: I feel close to all of them; all of them come from some part of me. But, I have a soft spot for Siok Mei. The way that she grapples with whether she wants to have a child or not was something I myself was working through when I was writing the book, and her strong political beliefs and fighting spirit made her a very dynamic character, one who kind of wrote herself, almost.
MS: And, too, the opposite: who was hardest to get on the page?
RH: Strangely, it was Ah Boon, though he was the main character. I saw him very clearly as a little boy, but it was more difficult to deepen and complicate the way he evolves as he grows up. Perhaps because he was the main character, and so finely balanced between the different and opposing points of view that the other characters hold, it was challenging to write him in a way that felt like an honest navigation of the different possibilities. I revised him many times, which was hard but also incredibly satisfying.
MS: You mentioned above you were considering motherhood while writing The Great Reclamation. Your life looks quite different now than when we met in 2018 — you’ve moved to New York, you’ve had a child. Has any of this changed your relationship to your work?
RH: Yes, life has changed quite a bit, especially with the arrival of our son, who was born in late 2021. Like many, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write after having a child. And it is true that time is more scarce, and I am more tired. But rather unexpectedly, I also feel more creative than before; perhaps something about being busy, as well as the intensity of emotion that comes with parenthood, that creates a bubbling up or a subconscious accumulation that is particularly conducive to new ideas.
It’s cliched, I know, but life does feel so much richer and deeper with him. I feel that being his mother has sharpened my focus, in that it has become very clear what is important to me and what isn’t. A lot has fallen away, which is liberating, and one of the things which remains steadfastly present is my work. I feel more committed to and interested in it than ever before.
MS: You impart a great deal of Singaporean history to readers in The Great Reclamation, but it never feels cumbersome or heavy-handed. You mentioned earlier time spent researching for the novel; what kind of research did you conduct before and during your writing of the book? How did you go about incorporating it in such a natural way?
RH: I am absolutely fascinated by this time period of Singapore’s history, that moment of enormous change and possibility and also the unknown. So, the research didn’t feel like work to me. I spent over a year just reading various books by historians, geographers, sociologists, and politicians. I also spent hours and hours listening to oral history interviews stored in Singapore’s National Archives, which amazingly, is fully accessible online. Newspaper articles and photographs from the time were also rich inspiration, not merely for “accuracy,” but also for story, characters, and emotion. The research was endlessly enjoyable and interesting, and at some point I had to force myself to step away from it to actually write.
As for incorporating it in a natural way—thank you! I’m so glad you felt that way. It was a difficult line to walk, wanting to include enough so the reader has the context, and also to do justice to all the complex forces at play during the time, while not getting weighed down in exposition or too much detail. I also wanted there to be an expansive quality to the narration, a greater omniscience that could telescope between the intimate and the grand, the personal and the collective. Overall, I think always trying to remain grounded in character was helpful. No matter how far we veered into historical detail, I would always bring it back to what it meant for the characters that we’re following.
MS: Were there other novels and authors you looked to as guides—regarding researched novels, and also just in general? I’m curious to know what books and other outside influences (music, visual art) might’ve been floating around in your brain while you worked on this project.
RH: So many! Edward P. Jones’s The Known World was definitely a guide for me, in terms of voice, omniscience, 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, and how it portrays land and environmental degradation. Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency was also a guide and inspiration as a novel that delves into this moment in Singapore’s history. I read and loved Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift around this time; it was definitely an eye-opener for how history can feel fresh and narratively urgent. Finally, in an (amazing) class taught by Paul Yoon in my MFA, I read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Maria Dermoût’s The Ten Thousand Things, both of which blend history and myth, and deal with industrialization and colonialism in interesting ways.
Visually, I was very inspired by Charles Lim’s SEA STATE. I came across it in the course of my research and watched it over and over again as I wrote the book. I found the images so moving; the ship, the fish, the sand, and that final pastel shot of the flats–just incredible. There is an uncanny quality to it that mirrored what I wanted to capture in The Great Reclamation, this sense that what is real is so much stranger than anything that could be invented. I also love the work of photographer Sim Chi Yin, those eerie, almost luminous aerial shots of sand.
MS: I don’t want to spoil the book’s conclusion for readers but I’m so curious about the ending you’ve chosen. Did you always know the ending you were writing toward, or did you find your way there as you developed the novel?
RH: I knew what ending I was writing toward. In a way, that’s because Ah Boon’s coming of age parallels the coming of age of Singapore as a country itself, and that’s the ending that the country chose—that’s the ending that we ended up with. So, I always had a sense of where I wanted to get to; the challenge was the usual one, which is figuring out how to do it in a way that felt surprising yet inevitable.
MS: What are you reading now? Any new and forthcoming books you’re particularly excited about?
RH: I am currently mired in research for a new novel, which is still far too early to talk about, but is somewhat related to botany. As part of that, I’m in the middle of Andrea Wulf’s fantastic The Invention of Nature, about the famous nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt. I’m also dipping in and out of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology.
As for new books I’m excited about, I just received and am looking forward to reading Singaporean writer Jolene Tan’s After the Inquiry, which is being reissued this year. 2023 feels like a year of absolute riches! Some books I can’t wait to read are Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nicole Chung’s A Living Remedy, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos (translated by Michael Hofmann), and Jamel Brinkley’s Witness.