In Free (Norton, Jan.), Ypi recounts her experience coming of age in Albania during the fall of Communism.
How did you come to write about this chapter in your life?
This was originally meant to be a philosophical book. I’ve always been interested in the concept of freedom and how different political systems both try to realize it and how they constrain it or create different obstacles to its realization. The other thing that I was interested in is the common roots of liberal and socialist traditions of thinking about freedom. There’s this great promise that liberalism brings freedom but then it actually doesn’t work for a lot of people. The more I started thinking of the concepts philosophically, the more I was drawn to think about episodes of my childhood and personal experiences during Albania’s transition to liberalism. So the book went from being philosophical to one that was more
personal and open-ended.
For years, your family kept their political beliefs and ideals hidden from you, partly as a way to keep you safe from the realities of living in an oppressive state. What was it like to write their story?
That was one of the hardest parts about writing the book. It was obviously written from a first-person perspective, but I wanted to be more of an observer that tries to show the reader the way rather than inflict on the reader my own understanding of freedom. I kept a diary from when I was 10 to when this transition from Albania happened in 1990 to 1997. Back then it was very clear that I felt like there was something going on, like someone was lying. Was it the state or my teacher or was it my parents? I wasn’t sure which authority to trust. The paradoxical effect of being protected from the kind of oppression my parents experienced meant that my experience of the state seemed, to me, a very good one. The voice of the book came out of reading the diaries.
How do you think your book speaks to issues surrounding class and immigration today?
One of the ways I hope my book initiates a conversation about the current predicament is to really raise questions around the social system we are living in and the ways in which it hinders our free agency. One of the criticisms of socialist states has always been that they prevented people from immigrating. There is a very important symmetry, though, between the freedom to exit and the freedom to enter. We think that the West or liberal societies offer freedom of movement, but we don’t necessarily realize how they offer it to some agents and not others. If you’re rich, for example, you have money to travel. If you’re a highly skilled immigrant, you’re always well received. But if you’re someone from a different social class it’s not clear that you have the same freedoms. In a way this class struggle never really disappears.