Tuesday 22 August 2023

The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng

Devika Misra reports on a conversation between Rachel Heng, and some of her readers. 

Rachel Heng was born and raised in Singapore. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and her debut novel, Suicide Club (Henry Holt / Sceptre, 2018), was much praised. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Wesleyan University, Connecticut, USA. The Great Reclamation, her acclaimed new novel, explores Singapore’s rapid transformation from third to first world in just two generations. At its heart the story is one of unrequited love - a doomed childhood romance and a lost way of life, as both the novel’s protagonist Ah Boon, and his nation, come of age.

Rachel Heng never directly answers the question of whether she thinks  Ah Boon is more of an anti-hero than a hero. Once a quiet shy fisherman, he eventually becomes part of the machinery that facilitates Singapore’s pragmatic, efficient and what many see as ruthless march to modernity. The writer says Ah Boon is symbolic.

RH: “Ah Boon felt to me like, this Singaporean “every man” that I grew up with, like this guy of a certain generation. I was like, oh, before that man became that man, he must have been a boy, right? He must have been tender and loving and fearful and all of these things, and had hopes and dreams before someone crushed them so violently. How did he become like that basically, was my question. I was like, how do people become like that?”

As Ah Boon’s life unfolds he finds himself involved with an ambitious government reclamation programme to relocate residents from his fishing village to public housing apartment blocks. He grapples with more than  just losing a home and the only lifestyle he has ever known. Moving into public housing and working for the government meant sacrificing personal beliefs, a loss of control and a sense of independence.

This is the novel’s central dilemma and a question the writer asks her countrymen.

RH: “How did we get here to this point where we feel like the economic choice is always the right choice, that progress is unquestionably good in all circumstances, that everything is pragmatism and everything is like a utilitarian decision?” 

One factor that explains Singapore’s success is its ability to access more land than the island originally had. Some estimate that since its independence in 1965, the city state has reclaimed about 22% of its total ground area from the sea even while it continues to be engaged in large land reclamation projects.

RH: “The physical place is so rapidly evolving and so sort of tenuous, even the land can be taken over by the sea, or the sea can be taken over by the land. And these things that feel very immutable and solid actually turn out to be changeable after all."

She asserts that it follows therefore that home is less about a place and more about people; about family. How can one identify one’s home in the absence of even the remnants of physical markers?  What makes home, she says can’t be a physical place for Singaporeans.

RH: “I think because Singapore is the way it is and has developed so rapidly over generations, even growing up in Singapore in the nineties, two thousands, I felt that. I grew up in public housing, and the places that I spent almost decades in have been raised and taken back by the government. And there's one place where it's just a grass field now, and the only kind of remnant of the buildings that used to be there are the trees that they haven't cut down yet, so the trees form this ghostly outline of all the buildings. So there's this feeling, I think, even in my time, that the past is constantly being erased. And so that does make your relationship with home a little more fraught or tenuous in the absence of those physical memories, I suppose, and the ways in which you return to a childhood place and you kind of expect it to be the same, or you expect to be reminded of childhood, but then you go back and it's not there at all. So it's almost as if Singaporeans have moved to a different country while staying in the same place.”

She wanted The Great Reclamation to raise questions that have always piqued her curiosity rather than provide clear answers.

RH: “These were choices that were made and sacrifices that were kind of agreed upon, necessary. And who am I to say, sitting here in 2023, having grown up in a nice HDB (Housing Development Board) flat, that they shouldn't have done that, right? So I think it tries to walk that line of ambivalence rather than saying, like, one thing or the other. How did we get here? Why is it like this? You know, I think there were a lot of things that I sensed growing up in Singapore that felt weird. Something felt like things that I didn't understand…. like, my family or my mom often says or, I hear people say that, Singapore has no history. You know, people would say that we have no culture, we have no history. As I got older, I was like, that can't be true. Literally, it cannot be true. We came from somewhere.”

Details: The Great Reclamation (Riverhead Books, 2023) is available in paperback.