In conversation with Prishtina Insight, Lea Ypi explains what drove her to write her highly praised memoir of childhood and youth in Hoxha’s Stalinist fiefdom, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.
As a child, whenever a commercial came on the television, from TV Skopje, Lea Ypi’s father would excitedly call his family into the living room so they could watch these exotic images on the screen together. Ypi’s memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History is full of such memories: the teacher who did not wash the hand shaken by “Comrade Enver” Albania’s boss, for days, the reverence displayed towards an empty can of Coca-Cola, the airplane cutlery from a rare trip outside the country kept for a special occasion – her conviction that Socialism meant freedom.
The book paints a vivid picture of growing up under Communism in Albania. It also describes what came afterwards, the sudden transition to capitalist democracy, the unrest that followed the fall of Communism, the crumbling of all that was familiar, and the impact this had on her parents, their position in society – and on her.
As a child, she did not know that she was related to Xhafer Ypi, the former Albanian prime minister reviled later as a quisling. She thought of him as “the other Ypi” and patiently explained to her friends that they were not related, the shared name was a coincidence. “Why do we have to share a name with a fascist?” she complained. But he was her great-grandfather. It was a secret within the family. This along with grandmother’s wealthy background dictated the jobs her parents were able to take.
Now a professor in Political Theory at the London School of Economics, Ypi initially set out to write a more straightforward political text, exploring the meaning of freedom and the idea that: “A society that claims to enable people to realise their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing, is also oppressive.”
But Coming of Age evolved into a far more personal and evocative book, a coming-of-age tale and a portrait of a country at a time of great societal change.
In conversation with Prishtina Insight, YPi tells the story behind the book.
PI: What made you decide to write a memoir?
LY: I’ve always been interested in the overlaps in the idea of freedom in the liberal and Socialist traditions. I’m interested in how Socialist intellectual history and political thought tries to point out that if you really care about freedom, then you should overcome capitalism, because living under liberal capitalism creates forms of injustice in which freedom is only realised for some people and not for others.
I was interested in exploring this philosophically. But I didn’t want to write it in a very abstract way. Whenever I thought about these things, I kept thinking about life in Albania and examples from my own childhood, and teenage years.
I had been approached by an editor at [publishing house] Penguin who wanted me to write on this topic. Because this book was meant to be accessible to everyone, I suggested to her I write it as a kind of personal history.
PI: It’s a rich and vivid piece of writing that really conveys a sense of living through events. How did you go about creating this sense of immediacy?
LY: I started doing research the way you would for any other book. I was reading newspapers and watching documentaries and films from the period, interviewing friends and family members, because sometimes I wouldn’t remember exactly how it was.
When I was 11, I started keeping a diary. This was when things changed in Albania, in 1990. I had quite detailed diaries and I could go back and see how an 11-year-old who lived through that period was actually thinking about this stuff. That helped me recreate the voice of the narrator in the book. I tried to write the book with that child in mind and to try to get rid of the philosopher that they became.
PI: When it comes to the events of 1997, what made you decide to share these diaries directly with the reader?
LY: It was hard to construct a logical way of telling the story of 1997, which was a really weird period. It felt like a war, but it wasn’t quite a war. It was presented as a civil war, but it wasn’t really a civil war. I just didn’t know how to do it. I said to my editor, ‘You know what? I’m just going put in the diaries and see how it reads.’
PI: The early part of the book conveys the sense of overlapping realities, of a language of euphemisms and codes, things that could not be spoken about. Is this something you felt at the time or something you came to understand later?
LY: I remember this discomfort from early childhood. I knew that something was weird about me and about my family. For example, the fact that I spoke French from a very early age singled me out compared to other children. You know you don’t quite belong. Throughout my childhood I kept thinking, why don’t we have a photograph of [Enver] Hoxha? Why does everybody else have a photograph? And there was this sense that sometimes my parents didn’t share the same loyalty that I felt to the system and to the party. But it only broke out in 1990.
PI: There’s also a strong sense that transition for Albania meant the swapping of one form of oppression for another – that the attempt to integrate into the global capitalist economy carried a huge human cost.
LY: Under Communism, and Socialism, there was oppression and censorship [but there was] direct individual responsibility for certain things. Whereas I think after 1990 you were left in the hands of processes that were more anonymous. The way in which power was exercised was so opaque that it was easy to overlook all the injustice it produced, because you couldn’t really point the finger at any particular individual. In Socialist Albania, there was a more clear-cut way of understanding how oppression works. And I feel after 1990, a lot of people didn’t really see the oppression because they didn’t see this anonymous way of producing injustice as responsible for their lives changing for the worse. Whereas, from my point of view, it was quite clear that these were two different systems that worked in oppressive ways for different reasons. And you couldn’t let one off the hook by saying: ‘Oh, well, this is the cost of transition’, or this is what freedom requires, which was very much part of the rhetoric.
PI: The fate of your schoolfriend, Elona, is particularly upsetting.
LY: That is a story that’s not that rare. If you go to Albania, there are hundreds of people who will tell you the same thing about girls that were sold to sex trafficking.
PI: It strikes me as a very balanced book, in its depiction of communism and what came after, very layered, and while some of what it describes is distressing, it is often very funny.
LY: One thing that I was keen to avoid is to have a narrator that imposes her worldview on everybody who reads the book and tells them what to think about Communism and what to think about liberalism. I wanted to write it in a way that had lots of different characters each with their own life experiences, and each with their own convictions, and each with their own views of freedom and then see how those views of freedom were matched or not matched in the respective systems. I think it’s only in the epilogue that the author comes out and I tell you why I wrote this story.
PI: What happened to you after the end of the story you tell? After you left Albania, where did you go?
LY: I went to Italy to study philosophy. In Albania, I had experienced the failures of liberalism and capitalism, but I didn’t have the categories to see it as a failure of freedom. Then, in Italy, I was living in student accommodation with very little money. I came from this posh, upper-class Albanian family. Suddenly I was an immigrant. And there was stigmatisation and stereotype against Albanians in Italy. I started to hang out with a lot of leftists, a lot of people who were quite critical of the societies in which they lived but didn’t think they had anything to learn from the society in which I lived.
PI: The book has been well received in the UK where it has been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize. How has it been received in Albania?
LY: In Albania, it sometimes felt as if the book was being politicised, but in a very superficial way without [people] having really read it.
[In the UK] it had amazing reviews from the Daily Mail to Jacobin, through the whole political spectrum, which was quite surprising and really heartening as well, because it shows that with a country like Albania and a story like mine, you can raise universal questions – and people will want to engage with these questions.