Lea Ypi: Winner of the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize
By Caitlin Evans, Ellie Brady, Gabriella Sotiriou, Paridhi Badgotri and Thomas Caldow
On Wednesday 4 May, Lea Ypi was announced as the winner of the 2022 Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for her latest memoir novel, Free. The exciting announcement was made during an award ceremony held at a historic London landmark, Two Temple Place, where Ypi was presented with the prize by the current president of the Royal Society of Literature, Colin Thubron.
The Ondaatje Prize, awarded annually by the Royal Society of Literature, highlights stand-out works of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry that the panel feel best evokes the spirit of a particular place. This year’s panel consisted of the Chair, Sandeep Parmar, author, Patrice Lawrence, and Professor of Law, Philippe Sands. Bearing the name of its founder, Sir Christopher Ondaatje – a Sri-Lankan born, Canadian-English businessman, writer, philanthropist and bob-sledding Olympian, the prize incorporates the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for regional fiction, last presented in isolation in 2002. The lucky recipient of the Ondaatje Prize receives a cool £10,000 prize – plus the deserved acclaim and status such an award has to offer. To be eligible for the prize, writers must be a citizen or resident within the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. Previous winners of recent years include Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers, set during the BSE crisis in the Irish borders, and British-Trinidadian poet Roger Robinson’s poetry collection, A Portable Paradise.
A professor of political theory at London School of Economics and Political Science, Ypi is described as an expert in juxtaposing grand and personal narratives. She is a native of Albania and her book also deals with the politics of life in Albania. She has attained degrees from various prominent institutions of the world. She pursued degrees in philosophy and literature from the Sapienza University of Rome, a PhD from the European University Institute and a post-doctoral research fellowship at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Further, her work has been awarded a British Academy Prize for Excellence in Political Science and the Leverhulme Prize for Outstanding Research Achievement. Her research interests lie in political normative theories and enlightenment political thought with an emphasis on Immanuel Kant, nationalism in the intellectual history of the Balkans and Marxist critical theories. She has published various articles on her ideologies in prominent spaces like The Guardian and Financial Times.
The book opens with a strikingly memorable image – eleven-year-old Ypi clutching the foot of a recently beheaded statue of Joseph Stalin. Free is Lea Ypi’s enthralling account of growing up in Albania, a country isolated as a result of being the final outpost of Stalin’s communism. She documents the shocking change in her community when in December 1990, statues of Stalin and Hoxha were vandalised. Those who previously lived in fear of the secret police could suddenly speak, dress, and even vote freely without risk of punishment. Ypi, however, questions what this new found freedom truly meant for Albanians as it arrived hand in hand with country-wide conflict and bankruptcy. Free is a unique memoir that captures the complexities of the relationship between the personal and the political. Written with insight and a wonderful touch of humour, Ypi illuminates the impossibility of predicting the future and how promises of utopia are rarely fulfilled.
As well as Ypi’s winning entry, the prize featured five other stunning works on the shortlist. Each novel, with its own sense of space and place, highlights another aspect of our humanity, finding the universal in the specific. Travelling between times, from the 17th century witch trials of A.K.Blakemore’s The Manningtree Witches, to Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s Writing [from] the [refugee] Camp, and then arriving at Cal Flyn’s Post-Human Landscapes. Moving from questions of time, to real and imagined spaces, we find Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees examining, in its own way, the questions of empire which are the focus of Sathnam Sanghera’s non-fiction offering Empireland. The shortlist beautifully illustrates the variety of meaning which can be found in the idea of place and demonstrates perhaps the central theme of the prize: it is our human experience which transforms the world around us into an idea which can be understood and shared with the world around us.
Ypi hopes that receiving the award for this memoir will bring much-needed public attention to the issues that are close to her heart: “It is really important to me because the place whose spirit is evoked is Albania, a place people don’t usually think about – it’s not somewhere that makes headlines unless there is something problematic happening. I hope that it will make people have an interest in the history of this country, which is also a history of universal significance… and make people more sensitive to the realities that should be paid attention to, regardless of whether there is a recognised crisis in a place or not.”