Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Nathan Go on his new book 'Forgiving Imelda Marcos'


*** Can history be shaped by slights, grievances, misunderstandings, as much as great events? Nathan Go's debut novel "Forgiving Imelda Marcos" begins as a letter from Lito, a father who is mortally sick to his estranged son. He wants to give his son, who's now a journalist in America, a story that will resound around the world. Lito was once the personal chauffeur to Corazon Aquino, who was elected president of the Philippines after her husband, Benigno, returned from exile to oppose the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and was shot to death as he stepped off the plane. The Aquinos and the Marcoses represented opposing forces - one for democracy, the other is personified by Imelda Marcos, a shoe-hoarding, jewel-loving kleptocracy. And Lito tells his son there is a postscript. Nathan Go is in the Philippines and joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

NATHAN GO: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Does Lito have a history his son might find hard to understand 'cause they haven't really known each other very well over the years?

GO: Well, yes. Lito has a secret and an intention. He wants to tell his son a story. But his son, being a stranger to him for so many years, isn't particularly open to Lito telling the story. And he promises his son the scoop about the secret meeting between Imelda Marcos and Corazon Aquino, hoping that this would be the reason why his son would listen to him and perhaps sneaking in other stories that Lito wants to tell.

SIMON: You know, Imelda Marcos' greatest fame was a generation ago. Remind us what she personified for many people in the Philippines and then around the world.

GO: Right. So Imelda Marcos is this bigger-than-life character, a very extravagant, flamboyant, charming person. And back in the '60s and '70s, she and her husband were being sold as this Philippine version of Camelot, of the Kennedys in the U.S. And so that was the appeal back then, and that was why they initially became very popular and came into power. But as the economy faltered, as a lot of people suffered hardships, the Marcoses became less and less popular. And so he has to declare martial law to stay in power. And during that time of the martial law, thousands and thousands of Filipinos suffered. A lot of them were detained, arrested, killed summarily. And those atrocities are still being remembered by the Filipinos. But I think it's also becoming more and more in the past, and more and more people are starting to forget.

SIMON: Lito becomes Corazon Aquino's chauffeur. And maybe we should pause to say the Aquinos are also a famous family, I mean, even before Corazon Aquino - weren't they? - in the Philippines?

GO: Yes. The Aquinos were also a big political family. Benigno Aquino, the husband of Corazon Aquino, was the main opposition leader who was assassinated during that time. And Corazon Aquino was kind of, like, the polar opposite of Imelda Marcos, where Corazon is this quieter conservative and a kind of, like, self-declared housewife. And Corazon rose up because of the husband's assassination, and she took power on a kind of popular uprising against the Marcoses.

SIMON: At the heart of your novel is a long drive from Manila. Lito is the chauffeur. He takes Corazon Aquino to meet with Imelda Marcos. That's her intention. A lot of people would just Google the route. You actually drove it, didn't you?

GO: Yes, I did. With a friend, we took the long route going to Baguio city from Manila, and it would take about six to eight hours. Driving through the countryside from Manila, you would first see a lot of industrial factories, that kind of thing. And when you drive past that, then you really see the countryside open up to sugar cane fields and rice paddies. I took that road trip because my principle in writing is to really embody my character. So every decision that I make in the book, I ask what my characters would do.

SIMON: And how did making that road trip - how did that set off some of your thoughts?

GO: Well, I realized that driving is, in some ways, a solitary activity. And it really gives you a lot of opportunity to think through things, to ponder things, especially if you're a passenger or your companion isn't as talkative.

SIMON: (Laughter).

GO: And so my character Lito, even though he hasn't finished high school, he has also a lot of time to think through the big questions that he thinks are important such as, you know, like, what is the meaning of life and random things like the internet. And one of those things as well when he was driving Mrs. Aquino is his question of, what are they doing, going to see Imelda Marcos?

SIMON: Yeah. Also, at the heart of your story is the difference between forgiveness and redemption.

GO: So this book, to me - I was really interested in the question of what forgiveness means. Is it more to give closure to the person forgiving? Or does it also have anything to do with the person being forgiven? What about if the person being forgiven isn't actually repentant, doesn't even acknowledge the injustice or the harm that he or she has caused? Is there any point in forgiveness then?

SIMON: What do you make of the fact that a son of Benigno and Corazon Aquino has since been president of the Philippines and now a son of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos is?

GO: I tried so hard not to be influenced by what's going on in the Philippines because I really wanted to just stay true to my characters. And in fact, the more I wrote this novel, the more I found that my interest really lies with Lito, the ordinary Filipino driver, rather than the political figures - although writing this story has made me think. And Lito being a stand-in for the ordinary Filipino, it is quite inevitable for him to ask the things that are going on today. Is there something about the Philippines or the Filipinos, why we have elected, you know, the son of the former dictator? Is there something in us that are quick to forgive, to forget? Or is it something that is going on all around the world? Are we not any different from other people in other countries? Is it human to look back at the past with more rose-colored glasses? And so this bigger questions (ph) are in my mind when I was writing this novel. But I - rather than have those answers, this novel, I think, attempts to answer some of the questions. But I was more interested in exploring the questions rather than giving any answers.

SIMON: Nathan Go, his debut novel, "Forgiving Imelda Marcos." Thank you so much for being with us.

GO: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF JELLY ROLL MORTON'S "MISERERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
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.