Book Review: Nathan Go’s “Forgiving Imelda Marcos” — The Price of Broken Relationships
By Grace Talusan
Nathan Go’s debut novel is entertaining, emotionally resonant, and raises provocative questions about forgiveness, redemption, and love.
Forgiving Imelda Marcos, by Nathan Go. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $26.
The title of Nathan Go’s novel Forgiving Imelda Marcos is a dare: Could you forgive the person linked to your spouse’s death? The person who made your five children suddenly fatherless?
In this case, the spouse is Filipino politician Benigno Aquino, whose assassination in 1983 kicked off a series of events, including a revolution, which resulted in his widow, Corazon, being elected president of the Philippines. Go’s novel imagines Cory through the perspective of her accomplice, driver Lito, on a road trip in which the former Madam President, sickly and toward the end of her life, sneaks out of her house in Manila, evading both her security and protective adult children, to keep a social invitation from Imelda Marcos in Baguio, a half day’s drive into the mountain province.
Like only the most famous, the Imelda of this novel requires only a first name. Widow of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator ousted during the 1986 People Power Revolution, and the mother of Marcos Jr., current president of the Philippines, Imelda’s face has launched a thousand art works. She has inspired, been the subject of, and popularized literature, visual art, films (two documentaries, Lauren Greenfield’s 2019 The Kingmaker and Rowena Diaz’s 2003 Imelda), fashion (butterfly sleeves), and even jokes (her heralded collection of shoes has inspired as many one-liners as leather pumps), since her launch into public life when her husband was elected president of the Philippines in 1964. Six decades later, she is as famous as ever: the center of David Byrne’s musical Here Lies Love, which begins previews on Broadway on June 17; referenced as the “Rose of Tacloban” in Gina Apostol’s latest novel, La Tercera; and as the namesake and raison d’être of Go’s debut novel. Of the Marcos family, the narrator tells his son, “If you’ve heard only a little about them, don’t be dismayed. Even some people here these days don’t remember, or choose to remember differently.”
And yet, Imelda isn’t present in this novel except for one imagined scene. Rather, she haunts Go’s fiction in much the same way as she hovered as a background specter in the lives of millions of Filipinos in the diaspora, especially those working far from home. In a labor program that the elder Marcos developed and the younger Marcos vows to protect, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) send remittances home in the billions of pesos. OFWs are the backbone of the economy, and are considered “Bagong Bayani,” modern-day heroes. But this economic boon comes at a steep cost, and that is what Go’s novel is primarily concerned with — the price that is paid through broken relationships. At the center of this narrative is a father on his deathbed, estranged from his son, trying desperately to connect.
The novel’s first person narrator is Lito, the Aquino family’s longtime driver. The reader soon understands that the book is a compilation of the letters that Lito’s adult son, a journalist in America, received after his father’s death. The father and son are close until they are forever separated after his young son accompanies his mother, also employed by the Aquino family, to the US. Like many children of overseas Filipino workers, Lito’s son grows up without his father. Like some, he believes he’s been abandoned until he matures and can fully comprehend the kind of love required of an overseas worker parent’s sacrifice. Lito’s son isolates himself; he does not return his father’s phone calls. Lito recognizes this silence as a family trait, writing, “We become mute toward those we are contemptuous of, especially if the contempt is so intense it starts to rival what was love.” His son’s mother suggests to Lito that he write their son letters, which she promises to give him someday. Lito claims to want nothing back from his son except “to tell him a good story.” At times, Lito tends to overexplain his attempt to justify why it’s important for him to make this deathbed confession. The narrative conceit reminds me of Russian nesting dolls — inside of each storyteller is another storyteller. Still, there is the suspense of wondering if Lito’s son was ever able to forgive his father. The novel is the answer. (Interestingly, Go has dedicated the novel to his father.)
Go is a talented, skillful writer. His ability to both describe and convey the complexities of politics and family in the Philippines is impressive. For those who don’t know about the long relationship between the US and Philippines, Lito offers his son some context: “Many forget we were once an American colony — your colony.” Lito offers up opinions about his son’s home country, observing that America is “a liberator from the problems it created in the first place” and “America is a type of synecdoche. It is a few individuals who take it upon themselves to stand in for the views of everybody, sometimes accurately, but usually inaccurately.” From his wise perspective as a Filipino looking at the US, Lito warns, “What has happened here could happen there and anywhere else.” As a Filipino who grew up in the US, I marveled at moments of intimacy such as when Lito’s caretaker says, “we have to be careful with our heart” and explains it as “using this quaint third-person-plural construction in Tagalog.” Go masterfully shows the tension between the individual versus the communal through moments of distance and closeness between characters.
Despite this being an alternative history that includes a meeting that never took place, I was curious about whether the author was trying to play metafictional games when he deviated from the facts. For example, Benigno Aquino was assassinated in August. Yet Lito insists that the date was in “late May, I remember — because that’s also your birth month — and I was visiting my own father up north.” I thought of that cliché about how to lie effectively — throw in just enough factually accurate detail to make the lie seem like the truth. Is Go suggesting that Lito is an unreliable narrator? Or is this the author’s reminder to the reader that this is all a lie, a fiction?
Such headscratchers do not get in the way of enjoying the narrative. Forgiving Imelda Marcos is in the tradition of the best American road trip stories; and yet the novel feels so Filipino. With confidence and imagination, Go takes us on a gripping journey of a father telling the stories of his past as a way to reach into a future where his son might understand and forgive him. Sometimes all we have to offer each other are stories, and Go dares us not only to forgive, but to offer more than silence while a person is still with us, before all they are is story. Lito’s longing to connect with his son is the tough but heartbreaking thread that holds the various strands of this story together. The result is an entertaining, emotionally resonant novel that raises provocative questions about forgiveness, redemption, and love.
Grace Talusan was born in the Philippines and raised outside of Boston, where she currently lives. She is the author of The Body Papers, which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing and the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction. Her writing has been supported by the NEA, the Fulbright, US Artists, the Brother Thomas Fund, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University.