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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Lea Ypi: ‘Hope is a moral duty’ | Autobiography and memoir

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Lea Ypi grew up in the last Stalinist outpost in Europe: Albania. She had no idea that Xhafer Ypi, former prime minister of Albania, a man she had to pay lip service to despising, was her great-grandfather, nor that her parents were anything but enthusiastic about the communist regime. In her award-winning memoir, Free, she recalls that in 1991, when communism in Albania came to an end, her parents revealed the truth and told her the country had been an “open- air prison for almost half a century”. She goes on to write about her harrowing experience of civil war in 1997. Ypi is a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics.

You explain that “biography” was a fraught concept in communist Albania. Was this irony in your mind as you embarked on your memoir?
I didn’t set out to write a memoir – I was going to write a philosophical book but then Covid-19 happened. I was in Berlin sheltering from my kids who were always chasing me around the house. They felt that if we were all in the house, it couldn’t be that some people were working, everyone should be playing and it was always Sunday. So I was hiding in this cupboard and the book became more and more personal because it was about this very experience of physical restriction surrounded by great uncertainty about what freedom meant in a liberal society. I’d been in a lockdown in Albania, in 1997, and although completely different and terrifying because there was a war outside, there was a sense of deja vu.

Your childhood was an age of ignorance. Did having the wool pulled over your eyes affect your later ability to trust?
It is the transition from not knowing to knowing that challenges: is the new truth just another story? The feeling of scepticism about the truth revealed after a great lie has never really left me. It’s what attracted me to philosophy. I work with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and one thing that shapes his philosophy is this effort to detach reason from dogmatism and scepticism. For me, being critical involves not accepting dogma. But the opposite danger is scepticism – once you reject the truths you’re given, you may be left with very little and an inability to trust that can be paralysing. I try to steer clear and find ways of rooting myself in abstract morality.

What was Albania like as a country, aside from its politics, and do you miss it?
I miss it a lot – its steamy, hot summers and dry, windy winters. Growing up on the coast in all seasons makes you relate to the sea differently. It has a whimsical nature to it. Our high school was close to the sea and we’d sometimes go to it in our breaks… Even when I was little, I knew there was a world away from Albania on the other side of the sea, so it also had this suggestive aspect.

Where do you live now?
When people ask: “Where is home for you?” I always answer: Heathrow, Terminal 5 [laughs]. I don’t know where I belong… it’s not Albania any more because I have an immigrant relationship to it. I travel a lot and have connections with many countries. But let’s say my official citizenship and residence are London.

Your grandmother said: “Hope is something you have to fight for. But there comes a point when it turns into illusion.” What did you hope for as a child? What do you hope for now? And is hope for our planet an illusion?
I hoped to be a good citizen. I grew up with a sense of political responsibility. I felt I was a pioneer and identified with the state and the party. What I hope now is, actually, not too dissimilar: I want to be a good, responsible member of society and to promote freedom. I have a philosophical answer to the last part of the question. Hope is a moral duty – we have to act as though there is the chance of things going in a way that is favourable to what we want to achieve. If we were nihilistic, we couldn’t uphold that sense of duty.

Freedom is your continuing preoccupation. How do you define it?
Freedom is also an awareness of duty, the thought you can do your duty however hard it is. The inner moral dimension gives me the foundation from which to criticise society. We live in a world of asymmetric power relations at all levels in which there is an exercise of power by the powerful and those who are weaker and more vulnerable are the passive recipients of that power. That dynamic of power relations is fundamentally inimical to freedom.

You grew up in a Muslim family required to denounce belief. Do you have religious belief now?
Albania was constitutionally atheist – God was a bunch of lies. At the point at which every truth I believed in turned out to be a lie, I wondered if the lie about God might have been true. In the 90s, I went shopping in the free market of religion. I was Catholic for a few months then started going to the mosque and practised doing Ramadan. I was going to explore Buddhism but ended up studying philosophy because I didn’t know the answers. I’m agnostic now.

Your mother emerges magnificently as a knife-wielding speechifier, a powerhouse… are you at all like her?
I was always inspired by my mother’s fearlessness. I try to emulate it, although I’m not sure I succeed. As a child, when we were walking together around Durrës, my hometown, it was very dark at night, there were lots of drunks and I was very scared but saw complete fearlessness in her. I’d say: “This person is mad, he’s drunk, he’s going to attack us.” And she’d say: “No, we’ll attack him!”

You write tactfully about your mother’s escape abroad with your brother during the civil war but it would seem she split the family in two. That must have been very upsetting?
It was. It was only later I understood she was in a situation where she felt she was saving a child but my grandmother always had this comeback: “You were leaving another child.” I’ve somehow made peace with it but it was difficult at the time.

Did you ever hear again from your childhood friend, Elona, whose poignant story you tell and who fled the country aged 13 and became a prostitute?
She died a week after my book came out. Someone who recognised her wrote to me. I cried for days when I heard this news.

How did you come to be a professor at LSE?
I studied philosophy in Rome – it was a straightforward academic career from there. I did a PhD in Florence, went to Oxford for a post-doc and got my job at the LSE.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I loved Greek mythology. I was completely obsessed with the gods and by the fact they were so powerful and powerless at the same time. In Albania, the choice of books was very limited. I read all the books in the bookshop and the children’s library, then went to the grownup library, which is where I started reading the Iliad and the Odyssey. And Russian fairytales.

Which book would you give to a young person?
Greek myths! My children are 11, six and four. I actually gave them to my kids at five…

What do you plan to read next?
The Memoirs of Ismail Kemal Bey, a memoir by Albanian political leader Ismail Qemali, who was the founding father of Albanian nationalism because my next book is on the fall of the Ottoman empire. And Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad and one or two history books. And I plan to read The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth.

Does light reading exist for you? Where do you turn for comfort reading?
I don’t think so [laughs]. Nineteenth-century novels. My favourite book is Dostoevsky’s Demons – an amazing exploration of the history of ideas and of the human soul.

Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi is published in paperback by Penguin (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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