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Rachel Heng on her novel 'The Great Reclamation'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New novel opens on an astonishing scene - 1941, off the coast of Singapore, a fisherman out in waters he's navigated his whole life. And with him are his oldest son and, for the first time, his youngest, 7-year-old Ah Boon. Suddenly they feel the tidal pull of a great island where previously there had only been ocean. Let's ask Rachel Heng to read from her new novel, "The Great Reclamation."

RACHEL HENG: (Reading) How then to explain this here now? Was it a mirage? But the waves proved otherwise. Pa (ph) could tell from the rocking of his boat how far they were from land, and its movement tallied with what he was seeing. For a moment, Pa had the mad thought of driving the boat straight through the shore to see if it would go right through.

SIMON: Rachel Heng's novel uses that view of what may rise up seemingly out of nothing to tell a tale of Ah Boon's future and that of Singapore under British colonial rule, Japanese occupation, self-governance and then the rising tide of society trying to remake itself. And at what cost? Rachel Heng joins us from New York.

Thank you so much for being with us.

HENG: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: How much did you have to learn and know about fishing to write this novel?

HENG: Well, I researched the book for about a year before even starting to write. And learning about fishing was certainly part of the research. And I actually met someone who specialized in colonial fishing practices. And so he shared plenty on the type of equipment they would have, you know, what their lifestyle was like and just all the little details that went into the book.

SIMON: Does this novel owe a debt to Stendhal's "The Red And The Black," the Great French 19th-century novel?

HENG: Yes, it actually does. And thank you so much for bringing that up. It's one of my favorite novels. And I - because I wanted to write a coming-of-age novel, I saw a kinship, you know, between Ah Boon and the main character of "The Red And The Black," Julien Sorel, who is also, you know, a shy, sort of bookish boy growing up in a rural area who has great ambitions for himself and his life, but is not only driven by his own ambitions, but also very much the forces outside of him - right? - the political changes happening, his desire for love and connection, the ways in which he does and doesn't fit into his community. And all of that felt very appealing and sort of very relevant to Singapore and the political changes happening at that time.

SIMON: Tell us about the - I guess they were known informally as the gahmen in Singapore's government after independence. Who were they?

HENG: Yeah. So the gahmen in Singapore is sort of a shortened version of the word government - not exactly slang, but just the colloquial version of it. They are the local government - so the politicians who manage to sort of gain control and rise to power just as the British are leaving. They have, you know, very grand plans for Singapore, this tiny island nation. What you see in the novel is the beginning of the gahmen's plans - so this great modernization project to lift, you know, the populace out of poverty, to raise standards of living, to urbanize and to modernize the country's infrastructure. And the Great Reclamation project, which...

SIMON: Yeah.

HENG: ...The book is titled after, is part of that. So that's the land reclamation project that reshaped the southeastern coast of Singapore in which the village Ah Boon lives in is based.

SIMON: Right. Help us understand the scope of that project and what it - well, what it wound up doing.

HENG: Yeah. So, I mean, land reclamation - I guess it's more commonly known as landfill in the U.S. So just briefly, it's the act of filling in a water body - like coastal area, marshland or lake - with sand in order to create artificial land. And Singapore is a very small country. It's an island about a little over half the size of New York City, and it's actually grown by about 25% in land mass since the 1960s through land reclamation.

So the Great Land Reclamation (ph) project was the largest initiative that happened after independence - that started in the 1960s and went all the way through to the 1990s - which completely reshaped the southeastern coast of Singapore. And people may be familiar with, you know, one of the opening scenes in "Crazy Rich Asians," where you have this luxury hotel, the three towers with the boat on top, and that's built on reclaimed land that was created as part of this project. And while, you know, today we see the very impressive outcomes of land reclamation, like these luxury hotels, what my book focuses on is the people, such as Ah Boon's fishing village, you know, their homes, the ways in which their ways of life were altered so dramatically in a very short span of time in the name of nation building and the greater good.

SIMON: I was very touched to read the acknowledgments. And you thank your mother for many of her stories. They're at the heart of this novel.

HENG: Yeah. The reason why I wanted to write this novel was, you know, the Singapore I grew up in is the one that people are familiar with - right? - this sparkling, modern city full of skyscrapers and highways, very urbanized. But the Singapore that I hear my mother talking about was very different. She grew up in a wooden shophouse that didn't have running water. They had a tarp for a ceiling. You know, whenever it rained, it would flood. Cockroaches would come in with the water.

So whenever she, you know, and my other relatives would talk about this Singapore, it felt like a totally different country, but also one that existed not very long ago at all because that was her lifetime. And so in writing this book, I wanted to bring that Singapore to life to explore what it must have been like, you know, for that Singapore to be your home and then see it transformed so rapidly before your eyes.

SIMON: You know, Singapore is such an astonishingly diverse society, ethnic Chinese, Indian, scores of religions - if I may - amazing food.

HENG: (Laughter) Absolutely.

SIMON: But can a novelist thrive there, given the level of official censorship?

HENG: I think there are different issues at hand for novelists. Maybe this applies to anyone writing about home, that - for me personally, I don't think I could have written this book if I had never left Singapore, and not specifically because of censorship, but because I do think I needed to have that distance from my home in order to see certain things about it more clearly. You know, I think - just take the rapid modernization, for example. When I was growing up in Singapore, I just took that as the norm - right? - as you do. And then once I left, I began to see that, oh, that's a really particular and specific choice. And then you start seeing these things about other values and other choices that were made by society.

And so I think all the different characters in my book have different opinions about what is happening. And no one is, you know, 100% for change and for the progress, and no one is 100% against it. I wrote it that way, with all of these different perspectives, because of that sense of responsibility that I have, the sense of love that I have for my home, and also, not knowing myself. I, you know, don't have an answer to the questions that are raised in the book. That's why I wrote it the way I did, with all the different characters kind of trying to work it out between them.

SIMON: Rachel Heng. Her novel, "The Great Reclamation."

Thank you so much for being with us.

HENG: Thank you so much, Scott. This was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.