Lea Ypi longlist author interview
Lea Ypi, author of “Free: Coming of Age at the End of History,’ talks to us about the difference between personal and academic writing, alongside how her perception of Albania has changed throughout her life.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
I feel a strange kind of relief, and I am curious to see how long it will last. I have lived in different countries for most of my life, and my writing has been shaped by a sense of anxiety about having to convey thoughts in languages in which I never felt I completely belonged. I always experienced this as a kind of unfreedom but what made things even worse is that at some point I realised that I had spent so long away from Albania that I felt like an alien in my native language too. So to be recognised as a worthy candidate for a prize that celebrates excellent writing in English is like being offered temporary shelter from a kind of linguistic homelessness that always haunts me. And to enjoy this recognition for a book which is a kind of meditation on freedom and the paradoxical ways in which we manage to do things despite never choosing freely the circumstances in which we are required to do them, has a nice ironic twist.
How different has it been to write from a personal rather than an academic perspective?
In one way, I always thought that the personal and the more academic way of writing were simply different ways in which to explore the same concepts I have always been interested in: freedom and its relationship to moral agency, how different systems enable and constrain it, and what we can learn from history in the process of reaching maturity both as individuals and as collectives.
In another way, both perspectives have their own advantages and disadvantages. With personal writing, especially writing based on one’s own life, the process is very emotionally intense and, for that reason I think, at greater risk of ending up rather self-centred. This was something I was determined to avoid while writing the book. I wanted to write a story in which many voices could be heard speaking freely, each with their own interpretation of events, their own system of values, and in conversations that did not try to resolve questions for readers but continued even after finishing the book. In many ways, Free is a book about the promises and perils of paternalism, and I was determined to write it in a non-paternalistic way. With academic writing, at least in my own discipline, political theory, this is very hard to avoid because you don’t set out to write a book to simply explore a question, but to show how it can be answered. This means you are positioning yourself vis-à-vis the reader in a very different way. To put it crudely, I would say that personal writing risks engaging too much with the particular and academic writing too much with the universal, when the right answer, is, I think, dialectical.
How does the Albania of today compare with the one you were growing up in?
I don’t think people growing up in Albania now experience the same kind of rupture in one’s self-understanding that people of my generation lived through. In some ways, their stories of coming of age are more continuous, and the background against which their expectations about the future mature is perhaps more reliable. This is both good – less traumatic perhaps – but also bad because it forces a kind of reconciliation with the thought that things are what they are, that the system can never be changed, which can lead to cynicism and political apathy. This is unfortunate too because some of the concepts and experiences on which I reflected in the book, like that of liberalisation, transition, the narrative of catching up with “the rest of Europe”, and the role of international institutions still very much shape the political debate. Many of the social and political experiences of unfreedom that I describe in the book are still ongoing, which means that the quest for moral authenticity is as urgent now as it was back then.
What are you working on next?
A philosophical project trying to make sense of the idea of political progress, and another personal story set in the Balkans in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and which explores many of the conflicts and dilemmas of the Interwar period which have come back to haunt us: nationalism and cosmopolitanism, socialism, fascism and the crisis of liberal democracy, individual and collective self-determination and so on.