Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History has won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje prize for a book that “best evokes the spirit of a place.”
Ypi was born in Albania in the last decade of the Communist regime. Free is a two-part chronicle of her childhood under the regime and the 90s rush to transform the country into a liberal democracy.
The judging panel—comprised of poet Sandeep Parmar, YA author Patrice Lawrence, and writer and lawyer Philippe Sands—praised the Ypi for her ability to weave the personal and the historical.
“Reading and rereading Lea Ypi’s Free we felt very strongly that the book’s central concerns – politics, personal history, the very meaning of freedom – spoke so resonantly to our lived moment,” they said of the book.
Turkish author Elif Shafak was also in the running for the £10,000 prize for her novel The Island of Missing Trees, along with The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn, Writing the Camp by Yousif M Qasmiyeh, and Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera.
Free has received wide critical acclaim in the UK where it was also shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. The prize was ultimately won by Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain, a history of the Sackler dynasty and their role in funding the opioid epidemic in the United States.
In Albania, Ypi’s memoir—which has been published as novel—has received mixed coverage. Among the praise, reviewers have criticized the book for factual inaccuracies, with others saying it should have been more explicit in its condemnation of the Communist regime.
Nevertheless, last week, the book’s self-translation into Albanian won the “Lumo Skëndo” prize for non-fiction.