The winners of the 1986 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes converge--in effect, if not by design--on the distinctly contemporary theme of oppression.
Geoffrey Hosking concludes his history of the Soviet Union with praise for the Soviet peoples' "remarkable capacity for . . . arranging their lives so as to steer round and even passively resist the oppressive regime which rules them."
But his praise reads a bit differently when set alongside Margaret Atwood's celebration of one woman's struggle to remember freedom after a theocratic coup d'etat in the United States.
Oppression is as omnipresent as it is grotesque in the South Africa of Joseph Lelyveld's "Move Your Shadow." And yet, when apartheid falls, then what?
The question is one that, in a way, poet Derek Walcott has already addressed. Born in the Caribbean Afro-America, Walcott asks: "I who have cursed / The drunken officer of British rule, how choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?" The old oppressor vanquished, a new one arises, to be fought in unlikely ways, by unlikely people.
Alexander Pope was such an unlikely person, a hunchback heretic in a country nearly as theocratic as the one Atwood imagines. Pope, as Maynard Mack shows us, unhorsed his high-horse opponents with a laugh, denying them what they needed most: the pomp of their moral superiority.
That's what it takes to hold oppression at bay: One must be poet and politician by turns. One must know when to sit in the dust and tell stories, and when to rise to one's full height and denounce.
Kay Boyle, winner of this year's Robert Kirsch Award--a poet, a story-teller, a political journalist and more--knows how to do both. From her example and from that of the other winners on this year's roster, we take inspiration and instruction in equal measure.