Free: how Lea Ypi memoir connected with readers around the world

The London School of Economics political theorist reflects on why her childhood memoir Free has been embraced by readers across the world

July 15, 2022
Portrait of Lea Ypi to illustrate her book, Free
Source: Getty

“It was completely unexpected – I’d hoped for good reviews but never thought it would sell as it has,” reflected Lea Ypi on the extraordinary success of her memoir, Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.

Last month, the London School of Economics philosopher’s book about growing up in Albania during the fall of communism topped The Times-Waterstones best-seller list for non-fiction paperbacks, ahead of titles by Jeremy Clarkson, Dolly Alderton and Bob Mortimer. That remarkable feat is, however, eclipsed by Free’s international record; it has so far been translated into 21 languages, selling impressively in the US, Germany and France, and the Italian film company behind the adaptations of Elena Ferrante’s novels is working on a TV version.

So how did a “book about ideas”, as Professor Ypi describes it, by a relatively unknown academic become this year’s go-to beach read? “I thought it might appeal to those from Albania or other eastern European states who shared the same experiences in the 1980s and ’90s, but people of all ages and countries have identified with it,” she told Times Higher Education.

Those readers “who tell me how liberalism is not working as promised in their countries” have certainly connected with Free, but it has been embraced by a global cohort of young people, many of whom are exploring their youthful assumptions about politics, religion and government, said the 42-year-old professor of political theory.

“I’m now getting emails from 18-year-olds living in the US Midwest, saying they have felt exactly the same way as I did,” said Professor Ypi. “I’ve had conversations with people from India and those from very conservative backgrounds telling me how they relate to the story.”

At one level, the account of a fairly uneventful childhood in a little-known country in the late 1980s and early 1990s is an unlikely literary sensation. But Professor Ypi’s lively descriptions of queuing for food and diesel, the Coca-Cola can proudly displayed on her parents’ mantelshelf and their refusal to display photos of Enver Hoxha, the Marxist leader who ruled Albania with an iron fist for 45 years, have enthralled readers.

The puzzle of why her parents do not join the denunciations of the “Albanian quisling” Xhafer Ypi, the fascist interwar prime minister, whom the young Lea is asked to despise at school, is another mystery that is unravelled in the book. He was, it emerges, Professor Ypi’s great-grandfather. The dawning realisation by the obedient young communist about her own lack of freedom is as gripping as any whodunnit.

“Much of the book is about how ideology frames how we see the world and the difference between appearances and reality – there was a disconnection between what I thought of the world as a child and what was happening,” reflected Professor Ypi.

“We live in a world which is framed for us, but people will always ask what we can trust and what is the truth. In our world of fake news, people are starting to ask those same questions about their reality and how it is framed – as they did with Covid when what they thought was a free society suddenly changed.”

Professor Ypi’s own path to academic philosophy, she reflected, was likely informed by the “differences between appearance and reality” that she explores in her award-winning book. “Free is all about trying to find freedom in a world of unfreedoms, and people across the world can relate to that,” she said.

The book was “mostly written from a cupboard in Berlin during the Covid-19 pandemic…the perfect location to hide from the children”, said Professor Ypi. It was originally intended as a formal treatise on notions of freedom inspired by John Locke and Plato, on whom she lectures. However, her examples continued to come back to her memories of the crumbling Stalinist system of Albania, where ideological allegiance remained strong until the very end.

“I was writing a book about freedom but wanted readers to experience freedom and unfreedom as I had,” said Professor Ypi. “Writing a first-person memoir is a better, more democratic way to do that – in an essay, you’re always guiding a reader to a certain conclusion. But in Free, it’s a more equal relationship between reader and author as I had to show them the unfreedoms as I gradually experienced them.”

The success of that approach is clear when readers engage her in discussions about the merits and failings of the book’s characters, she said. “As a child in the book, I’m more of an observer, but people want to talk about my parents or grandmother – everyone knows someone who is anxious like my dad, or wise like my grandmother,” she said. “And people have responded to other characters – not every communist was horrible and every anti-communist lovely. With every character, I’ve tried to show their shared humanity, which travels beyond political divides, but acknowledge that people make choices with a certain framework.”

Having travelled to Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, the US and, of course, Albania in a whirl of book signings and literary festivals in recent months, Professor Ypi will return from research leave to the LSE in September. “Having students is amazing – they are never afraid to ask difficult and fundamental questions,” she said.

Will she be passing on any tips about writing a best-seller? “If I’d worried about sales, or the book’s reception, I wouldn’t have written about Albania. I just tried to be sincere – finding that connection between my personal and academic lives was never my intention. It was a discovery for me that only arrived as I wrote the book.”


Print headline: A personal take on freedom 

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Reader's comments (1)

The book did shows some premise and provides some interesting insights from the perspective of a child into the absurdities of a crazy regime. However, the book is filled with fantasies from the perspective of an adult - it is apologetic to the fanatical and brutal regime of the time, comparable to North Korea of today, that caused so much damage to this small country, for which Albanians are still struggling with the consequences. The author tries to attribute positives to an overwhelmingly negative regime, comparable to saying there were positives when the Nazis ruled Germany (although there are still some people who believe this). The book offers a false premise, a smoke-and-mirrors story with subtle glorifications of the communist regime. I guess it is no wonder that Ms Ypi is the current Albanian regime's new favourite and her book was insultingly promoted at Enver Hoxha's former residence (the brutal dictator who ruled Albania for 41 years, responsible for killing thousands). And the current regime, the Socialist Party, are the direct successors of the communists, who still have in their ranks ministers and officials of the communist regime. The book will of course be fascinating to those from outside Albania who cannot imagine of the real horrors that were bestowed upon the majority of the people (that she makes almost no mention of) during a time when Ms Ypi was well shielded and thinking of Coca Colas. Mr Hoxha would have been very proud of Ms Ypi. Oh, and she has made it clear in various platforms, including a major newspaper, that she does not like any criticism of her world-view, but hopefully THE will respect the right for its readers to respectfully comment.