'I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin. From close up, he was much taller than I expected.' Lea Ypi grew up in one of the most isolated countries on earth, a place where communist ideals had officially replaced religion. Albania, the last Stalinist outpost in Europe, was almost impossible to visit, almost impossible to leave. It was a place of queuing and scarcity, of political executions and secret police. To Lea, it was home. People were equal, neighbours helped each other, and children were expected to build a better world. There was community and hope. Then, in December 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. The statues of Stalin and Hoxha were toppled. Almost overnight, people could vote freely, wear what they liked and worship as they wished. There was no longer anything to fear from prying ears. But factories shut, jobs disappeared and thousands fled to Italy on crowded ships, only to be sent back. Predatory pyramid schemes eventually bankrupted the country, leading to violent conflict. As one generation's aspirations became another's disillusionment, and as her own family's secrets were revealed, Lea found herself questioning what freedom really meant. Free is an engrossing memoir of coming of age amid political upheaval. With acute insight and wit, Lea Ypi traces the limits of progress and the burden of the past, illuminating the spaces between ideals and reality, and the hopes and fears of people pulled up by the sweep of history.
When Bernardine Evaristo won the Booker prize in 2019, aged 60, for her eighth novel Girl, Woman, Other, she made history. After 40 years in creative industries, everything changed as she became the first black woman to win the prize in the fifty years since its inception. This memoir is a page-turning, intimate and brave account of her life. Convinced that fame and success would come, this autobiographical story of her unstoppable journey towards her many accolades is an inspiration as she shares her life stages from her birth in Eltham in 1959 through her upbringing and cultural background, her influences and inspirations. One of 8 children of a fearsome Nigerian father and white English mother, we learn about her bi-racial childhood, early experiences of racism and the challenges of growing up as a mixed race woman which ultimately set Evaristo on the path of rebellion and freedom. The chapters take us through her heritage as an independent middle child in an inter-racial family in a predominantly white area. Through her years as a nomadic Londoner living out of bin bags. Through the men and women who came and went, all culminating in her finding her soulmate. We see her creative journey from theatre-maker, writer of poetry to fiction and her becoming the award-winning writer she is today. The book concludes with her Manifesto. We see the potential, the possibilities, the rewards if you are brave enough, her refusal to conform and her passion for fighting for what she believes in. Although in her conclusion she concedes that these days instead of throwing stones at the fortress she sits inside its chambers having polite, persuasive persistent conversations about how best to transform outmoded infrastructures. She is formidable in every sense and I warmed to her and am inspired by her. She tells us of her addiction to the adventure of storytelling and I am in awe of that storytelling. Manifesto is about life, love, courage, community, creativity, activism and optimism. And I for one could not get enough of it. I’ll be pressing this book into the hands of people for years and imploring them to read it and everything she writes. We need more Evaristos in this world, that’s for sure. It’s a powerful manifesto from a trailblazer and a reminder that there is a manifesto in all of us.