Early on, singer-songwriter David Gray and writer Aleksandar Hemon struggled to be heard at home. But when they found acceptance abroad, their own countries—and the world—soon caught up.

AIRED: December 03, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Narrator] "Articulate With Jim Cotter" is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer family foundation.

(gentle music)

- Welcome to "Articulate," the show that examines

how creativity is the very essence of our humanity.

- [Narrator] And on this episode, displacement,

it took David Gray 10 years to achieve global success.

It took him even longer to come to peace with it.

- To an outsider, it look like I had everything,

but ultimately there was a false economy being had

because if I just kept pressing the accelerator,

I was squeezing myself out my own life.

- [Narrator] And exiled from his homeland,

writer, Alexander Hemon witnessed

from afar, the horrors of the Bosnian war.

He vowed to never let the world forget.

- For displaced people that the primary motivations

is telling the story, I get to tell a story.

And, not about myself necessarily,

but about the world that defined me,

the world that can perish just like this,

based on a decision by some, you know, bigshot.

- [Narrator] That's all ahead on "Articulate".

(upbeat music)

(gentle music)

♪ Please forgive me if I act a little strange ♪

♪ For I know not what I do

♪ Feels like lightning running through my veins ♪

♪ Every time I look at you

♪ Every time I look at you

- [Narrator] David Gray almost didn't survive infancy.

And though he was too young to remember,

he's never lost touch with his early struggles.

- I was starving for the first few weeks in my life.

I think that this wailing,

this noise I made is as a sort of comfort thing.

I'm letting something out.

- [Narrator] Gray was born (gentle music)

with a condition called pyloric stenosis,

which closed off his stomach from his small intestine

that made it virtually impossible to eat.

He believes that the surgery and the isolation

that followed are pivotal in farming his character.

- I was one of the first babies

in the UK to have the operation, so I'm lucky to be alive,

number one, the operational success,

they had a terrible mess of my body cause I was

so small and there was no keyhole surgery, but anyway,

for the next, however many weeks

of my life, I would have then been in an incubator.

And they say that this is the most important part

of your life, yeah.

So mine was pretty horrific, and I think my sort of

this is where I'm blaming my over sensitivity or,

my dad used to think I was hilarious

because if the wind blew too much,

I would get upset, you know, oooh

So I was very finely tuned.

- [Narrator] David Gray was born in the Manchester

suburbs of Northwestern, England.

When he was nine his family moved to Salva,

a small fishing village in Wales.

His parents founded artismal clothing company from what Gray

has described as a tiny little cottage

with this shanty bit on the side, that was the kitchen.

The countryside was a ripe setting for a child as curious

as Gray, constantly seeking to make sense of the world.

He recalls exploring the surrounding countryside

and the sea.

- Our neighbor was a fishermen called Buzz Blad,

who had a trawler and he took this boat out

with his kids on, and one morning I was,

we hadn't been there for more than six months.

It was like May, June time.

He came past our door and I was up,

but it was 6:30 in the morning.

And he asked if I wanted to come with them, and so.

I asked my parents and they said, yeah,

but it was a full day trip.

And we went out to Skomer Island,

which is a nature reserve about 10 miles away

from Salva across the braids bay,

picked up pots all the way,

mackerel fished for our breakfast,

which was cooked on the gas hopped in the boat cabin

with bread and butter, that was it, fresh mackerel

that that's the best food I've ever eaten.

And then we got there and it was just this cacophonous world

of birds, and mind blowing.

I met nature on a scale that I haven't even managed

to start to imagine.

And it was a transformative experience

on another version of this journey, few months

or years later, we were going along and it was flat calm.

We were picking up pots and just as he was

about to pull the rope in the boy in a salmon just came out

of the water and it's always just been frozen in midair

for the rest of my life, just this miraculous thing.

(gentle music)

- These and other miraculous things in the natural world

will become recurring themes in Gray's music.

His 2021 album Skellig is a homage

to the islands that are some

of the most westerly points of Ireland.

The larger of the two Skellig Michael is a UNESCO world

heritage site because of an unusually well-preserved

sixth century Christian monastery,

perched 500 feet above the waves.

It is also like Skomer Island,

a great sanctuary for seabirds.

The songs on Skellig were recorded in five days

at another remote geographic extreme,

Clash Narrow Studios near John O'Groats in Scotland.

One of the most northerly points of great Britain.

- We needed to be away from the world

and, away from phones and away from domestic duties

and business ideas and anything.

And just cut off a bit like the monks on Skellig.

We needed an atmosphere of remoteness and to be out

of context somewhere and to be together

and living communally and working communally.

So it felt like, I mean,

bottling something in a certain place at a certain time

definitely gives it a Frisell.

It gives it a sort of identity.

♪ So with a taste like metal

♪ On through the fog of war

♪ So many hurts like nettles

♪ Growing up 'round my door

- [Narrator] But that journey from the wild Wesley shores

of Wales to those of Ireland,

was neither easy nor straightforward.

Gray's commitment to creativity came early

and faltered rarely.

- There's a cutoff point in developmental, you know,

lots of children put that to one side at certain times,

but for me, it just gathered pace in my teens.

- [Narrator] His early struggles and the sensitivity they

imbued in him allied with the natural beauty

of the welsh landscape led Gray

to take an interest in painting at an early age after

high school playing in local punk bands,

he spent a year studying at Carmarthenshire College

Of Art an hour from home before heading

to the university of Liverpool to focus on painting.

When he eventually began selling some

of his artwork, he used the proceeds to fund music demos.

These eventually led to three albums

on two different labels, but they attracted little attention

for British music lovers and Gray was often close

to despair, but across the RC, something was brewing.

And just as he was questioning whether his music would ever

find an audience, the popular folk singer mary Black

recorded five of his songs

for her 1997, bestselling Irish album "Shine".

Suddenly people wanted to know who was this David Gray.

- I remember that can completely coming out of the blue.

And that was a Godsend but yeah, it was just,

I wasn't quite sure how things were supposed

to work from that point on,

but I had lit a fire in Ireland and that very much saw me

through the whole thing.

- [Narrator] And so Gray began regularly crossing the

Irish sea to perform, small venues at first, but growing,

ever larger as word spread

of this quirky welsh singer songwriter.

- I was based in the wilderness

for a couple of years and that the touring

in Ireland, which was continuing to strengthen

that was what was keeping me going,

so anyway, there was something there.

And the fact I was trying

to be poetic, wasn't seen as a bad thing, it was embraced.

- [Narrator] And so without a label nor funds

to rent a studio,

he began writing and recording in his London flat.

Gray's own piano and guitar playing against a backdrop

of live machine drums and synths

juxtaposed with deeply heartfelt lyrics,

stories of a young man's trumping to find his place

in the world, struggling to so to speak,

let go of his heart, let go of his head.

♪ The love that I was giving you was ♪

♪ Never in doubt

♪ Let go of your heart, let go of your head ♪

♪ And feel it now

♪ Let go of your heart, let go of your head ♪

♪ And feel it now

♪ Babylon

- The songs are so openhearted

and the melodies are so unapologetic.

You know, it doesn't try to be or posture as something.

It just is happy to be what it is.

And it's quite a full-blooded euphoric kind

of record, really,

or even with its sort of sonic limitations

because the songs that's the way that they are.

And it was an all or nothing moment.

There was nothing left behind in terms of the way we made

the record or the emotion that was put into.

- [Narrator] Gray shelf released "White Ladder" in 1998,

and then immediately began selling in thousands in Ireland.

It would take the rest of the world a couple

of years to catch up, but eventually the record

would become an enormous global smash.

Gray still struggles to fully explain

why the Irish took him to their hearts so readily.

- Because I think that acoustic songwriting and the word,

literary ideas are still very alive in the culture.

Whereas in the UK,

it's just so much more cynical and America's just enormous,

and you know, you kind of get just lost inside it.

So it's, it was so crucial to me.

I don't know exactly why.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] In the 20 odd years since "White Ladder,

david Gray has released 8 albums,

2002's "New Day At Midnight" and 2005's,

"Life In Slow Motion reached number one in the UK and

Ireland, and most of his releases

made the US Billboard, Top 20 Albums.

Gray has kept a large loyal fan base throughout the world,

many of whom first discovered him

through that first great flush of success.

He says has been constantly grateful

that his audiences allowed him to grow and grown with him.

- It's quite mind-boggling.

So obviously you do recognize the person and yet the person

that I am now is so markedly different.

Having been through everything that I've been through since

writing "White Ladder" and recording it, you know,

the entire arc of success

and trying to reset your stool for the next period.

I've always played a long game.

So that's what I believe in.

- [Narrator] Today David Gray is a settled 50 something

living in what he's called his mansion on the hill

in leafy north London with wife, Olivia and daughters,

Ivy and Florence, long gone are the days of youthful angst

that produce those early heart-wrenching songs

to be replaced by more mature, more contemplative work.

- I don't like narrative anymore.

And if it starts to happen,

I generally move away from it, maybe I'm afraid of it.

And maybe I'll return to it

but the sort of what's this about,

I prefer to be taken by surprise by the imagery,

which sometimes dredges really deeply personal feelings up.

I basically have to write from imagination.

My life isn't being turned upside down in the way it was

every couple of months when I was a sort of teenager.

And in my early twenties,

just throwing myself into relationships and whatever the

chaos of it says it's a fairly resolved thing.

♪ Shining in my eyes like I'm three years old ♪

♪ Shining in my eyes like I'm three years old ♪

(gentle music)

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Alexander Hemon lost much of his previous life

to the Yugoslav wars in the '90s,

but there's a reason he clings

to a world that no longer exists.

- In my particular case, and place where I'm coming

from in my family, there's a perpetual fear,

conscious unconscious that I experienced our existence

in the world will be erased.

If I don't tell stories

of my family, there might not be no memory of my family.

- [Narrator] Alexander or Sasha Hemon was born

in 1964 in Sarajevo in what was

then Yugoslavia, his most cherished childhood

memories where his father Peter's nighttime tales

of growing up in Yugoslavia during the second world war.

His father's descriptions of the lives

of Bosnian peasants during that time left

to hunger in young Sasha for nostalgia,

for people in places that only the collective memory

of shared stories can access.

- They are the same every time they are narrated,

they do not age or die or suffer, they keep existing

for as long as there's a story to be told.

This is one of the ways in which storytelling grounds being

in the ever-changing world.

It worked for Homer. It works for my father.

- [Narrator] Hemon's mother Anya,

meanwhile was a voracious reader who filled the shelves

of their home with great European classics.

One after the other,

young Sasha devoured Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Rilke.

In high school he put these aside for a while

and became obsessed with J D Salinger

and Raymond Chandler, books stimulated Hemon's

hunger for knowledge and led him to pursue a degree in

literature at the university of Sarajevo.

College essays made him see himself

as a writer for the first time.

Shortly after he began working

as a journalist writing passionately

about his hometown in a column called Sarajevo Republica

for the newspaper, Nashidondi.

- I get energized and getting envolved with the world,

but by virtue of by way of writing, that's why I do it.

That's my high.

- [Narrator] As you get slob can close to collapsing,

Heman was chosen for a cultural exchange program in the U S.

He would have returned to Sarajevo

but got stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war

broke out in April, 1992, forced into exile.

Heman learned on CNN that his neighbors were being butchered

and his beloved Sarajevo was being destroyed.

(gentle music)

- On the outskirts of the city in the Hills above,

the war was already mature and raging,

but in the heart of Sarajevo,

people still seem to think that it would somehow stop

before it reached them.

My father, however, advised me to stay away.

Nothing good was going to happen at home he said.

I was supposed to fly back from Chicago on May 1st.

On May 1st, I didn't fly home.

On May 2nd, the roads out of the city were blocked.

The last train with my parents on it departed

the longest siege in modern history began.

In Chicago, I submitted my application for political asylum.

The rest is the rest of my life.

- [Narrator] In Chicago, Heman had little money,

no family, no job, no visa, no idea what to do.

For a while, he found herself unable

to write in his native language.

New Bosnian words were coming out of the experience

of war and having watched the conflict from afar,

Heman felt those words were not his to use.

At the same time, his proficiency in English

was barely sufficient for life in America.

- My first legal job was canvassing door to door for

Greenpeace, for which I was trained

by a 19 year old named Jim.

At some point, Jim somewhat annoyed by me asked

how come you never use the articles?

Patiently, and painfully, I explained to him

that Slavic languages have no articles

and that it might take me a while to get that right.

And it wasn't as the articles.

I remember watching David Letterman's late night show

and having no idea what he was talking about,

just staring glumly while my friends roared with laughter.

- [Narrator] As the war progressed on the world found out

about the genocide being carried up by elements

of the Bosnian Serbs army against Bosnian Muslims,

some intellectuals Heman respected

and admired publicly dismissed the events and supported

to the Serbian nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic.

The urge to write about Bosnia

and Yugoslavia grew more vital for Heman, his voice,

his stories were missing from the conversation

and he could no longer stand and watch in silence.

To make sure the world would hear him,

he poured himself into learning English

with the determination of an Olympian.

(gentle music)

- I read and read at first underlining words

on the page to look them up later

in my Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary,

which I brought with me.

I couldn't read as much as I needed

to because I was working.

So I enrolled in a master's program

in English, at Northwestern University for the sole purpose

of reading more and more systematically,

I took out a huge student loan,

which I'm still paying off and signed up for classes

with the intention of reading through the history

of English literature, refresh what was familiar,

discovering new things, fill out the gaps.

I once broke up with a young woman who thought we had

something serious going because as I told her,

I needed more time to read Shakespeare.

The sex was fine, but King Lear was better.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Heman believes the war

in Bosnia weakened his mental defenses,

blowing his subconscious gates open

for the English language to enter, but in retrospect,

he understands his linguistically obsessive brain

had its origins in childhood.

- My father and all of my family, my father's side,

they're all bilingual, and also when I was a kid

in school, I was good at language.

There was a competitive curricular activity called

The League Of Young Linguists because Bosnia has complicated

in so many ways, the official language was complicated,

so we would study the rules that were written by a

conference of linguists and then compete in knowing the

rules of the language and then the doublets and, you know,

synonyms and homonyms and all that,

the whole linguistic vocabulary

and language I adopted in elementary school because of that,

I was constantly trying to get out of that,

play soccer and do nothing, but my parents wouldn't let me.

I think my linguistic ability is partly due to that

because I was immersed in language in a very deep level,

in my native language, when I was a child.

- [Narrator] In 1995 alexander Hemon reached the goal

of publishing his first story in English,

two years before a self-imposed deadline.

His first book, "The Question Of Bruno" came out in 2000.

The same year Heman became an American citizen.

Heman's books attempt to intertwine his life

in Chicago and the cruelty he had escaped in Yugoslavia.

Mixing fiction and nonfiction,

they amount to an intimate mosaic

of a time and place that might have been lost.

- So he would watch CNN% footage

of people with familiar faces crawling in their own blood,

begging the unflinching camera for help,

people twitching and throttling

as their stumps spurtted blood,

people who were trying to help them dropping

like an imploded building shot by a sniper.

And he would know that was the end of their lives.

- [Narrator] Literary stardom happened almost immediately,

but for Heman becoming a great writer,

isn't primarily a matter of personal pride and vanity.

It's about defining the threat of annihilation.

- History is largely still to this day,

conceived off as a stories of great men usually,

but of great individuals who have agency,

and they were presidents that they were leaders

and they led the nation to whatever.

But who tells stories of the rest of us, the nobody's right?

And so to me, the agency in the world,

particularly for displaced people that the primary mode

of agency is telling a story.

I get to tell us stories and not about myself necessarily,

but about the world that defined me,

the world that can perish just like that,

based on a decision by some big shot.

In my particular case,

and the place where I'm coming from,

in my family, there's a perpetual fear,

conscious unconscious that I experienced our existence

in the world will be erased or could be erased.

Historical ruptures, that can mean,

you know, genocide Holocaust,

but also the ease of displacement

or the ease of our being subjects of displacement.

That we cannot, if I don't tell stories

of my family, there might not be no memory of my family.

All we have are these fragments

that we're trying to put back to get in various ways

and never think that could be entirely put back together.

I want to keep those fragments, so that the details,

the tastes, the moments, the angles of sunlight,

the story is my parents, this is what I, this is,

this is my project, I want to keep that somewhere in a book.

And so that book could be on the shelf

for the next 100 years

but someone someday will pick it up

and say, oh, these people lived in the world.

- [Narrator] Alexander Heman's books are full

of surprisingly intimate disclosures that grant access

to the most private domains of his character's lives.

He has deliberately played with the concept of privacy,

challenging cultural notions

of what can and cannot be made public.

- Well, here's the thing in Bosnian,

there's no word for privacy, in fact,

the word that is close to privacy and private in Bosnia

in the languages of the Western Balkans is really related

to private property, and so obviously

in socialism, when poor societies where you can,

no one had private property, except very few people.

I also think that, not to harp on this,

there there's a certain value that comes from the sort

of Protestant Puritan tradition,

that privacy needs to be protected,

partly because as a sinner,

you must have some sins in that private domain, right?

And so once you expose yourself

to the gaze of others, you know, your domain of privacy,

something's going to come up right.

And so I did not grow up in that tradition.

I wrote a book about my parents.

We talk candidly about things like the first time they had

sex when no one was uncomfortable, right?

Because there was no sin involved.

- [Narrator] Alexander Heman's otherness has granted him

a place of his own in the US these days,

he teaches creative writing at Princeton University.

His novel "The Lazarus Project"

was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award,

and he's received many significant awards,

including a so-called Genius Grant

from the MacArthur foundation, but for the most part,

Heman still feels like an outsider,

speaking a different language.

- Throughout this pandemic,

I lost touch with a lot of American friends,

but I lost touch with none of my Bosnian friends.

In fact, we are more in touch than we have been for years.

In other words we have learned to stay in touch

and to create a collectivity of experience

regardless of the circumstances.

But it's also I think that's the American culture

is inherently transient and forgetful.

And I think it's partly related to that.

A common belief that you change just renew yourself

periodically in various ways, you move from one place

to another and just become someone else.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Alexander Hemon has most likely reached

his goal of preserving the memory of his family

out of a place for future generations

to know and care about.

Whatever he does next,

we'll no doubt also challenge our preconceived notions

of who gets to tell the story, what gets told, and why.

(upbeat music)

For more "Articulate," find us on social media or

on our website,

On the next "Articulate, great suffering drove Ian lee

to find solace in writing.

- I want to push myself to think about my blind spot,

what I don't see as always more important

or more interesting than what I do see.

- [Narrator] And witnessing his own development

with a watchful eye has

kept high flying choreographer, Miguel Gutiaries grounded.

- That's the arrogance and the blindness of youth.

Like you have no idea that grace is going to enter your life

in this other kind of way in a way that you,

that doesn't look like the Lifetime movie, you know,

it's a lot weirder and stranger and progressive than that.

- [Narrator] I'm Jim Cotter,

join us for the next "Articulate".

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] "Articulate With Jim Cotter" is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(gentle music)


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv