Academic Lea Ypi’s ‘darkly humorous and deeply serious’ memoir Free, which speaks ‘so profoundly to our lived moment’, has won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize.
The prize is awarded to books that “best evoke the spirit of a place”. Free chronicles of Ypi’s coming of age in Albania at a time when it was one of the last Stalinist outposts in Europe. In December 1990, the statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled and life changed overnight for people, who could now vote freely, wear what they wanted, and worship how they wanted.
But the change has also led to the disappearance of jobs and predatory pyramid schemes leading to the country’s bankruptcy, leading to violent conflict. As her own family’s secrets were exposed, Ypi found herself wondering what freedom really meant.
The jury was chaired by poet Sandeep Parmar, accompanied by YA author Patrice Lawrence and writer and lawyer Philippe Sands.
They said of Free: “Reading and re-reading Lea Ypi’s Free, we felt very strongly that the central concerns of the book – politics, personal history, the very meaning of freedom – speak so well of our lived moment.
The judges described Ypi as “a master” of juxtaposing grand and personal storytelling. They also praised how his “dark and deeply serious work” made them “think forcefully about the need for truth about the stories we are told and how we negotiate our own lives within them.”
Ypi, who received the £10,000 prize, is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University. She was announced as the winner by RSL Chairman Emeritus Colin Thubron on behalf of the award’s founder and founder Sir Christopher Ondaatje at an event at Two Temple Place in London.
Free was chosen as the winner from a shortlist of six books. Others in the running were 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, Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera and The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak .
The award was won in 2021 by Ruth Gilligan’s thriller The Butchers. Previous winners include former MP Alan Johnson for his memoir This Boy and Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam for her telling of her grandmother’s life story, The Wife’s Tale.