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.
David Gray is a chart-topping singer-songwriter, best known for his hugely successful 1998 album White Ladder.
Gray was born in 1968 near Manchester, England, and raised in Pembrokeshire, Wales. After attending Liverpool School of Art, he began to release albums in his mid-20s, achieving a minor following in folk-rock circles. His fourth album, White Ladder, which combined folk sensibilities with electronic instrumentation, made little impact on its initial release. However, its indie label rerelease in 2000 sold over 3 million copies in the UK and stayed on the country’s charts for 176 weeks, also peaking in the U.S. Billboard top 40. It yielded four international hit singles, including the UK top 5 song “Babylon.”
In the early 2000s, Gray received nominations for four Brit Awards, a Grammy, and multiple other awards. His albums A New Day at Midnight (2002) and Life in Slow Motion (2005) were also number 1 in the UK and Ireland. He has continued touring and recording albums ever since. His twelfth LP, Skellig, came out in early 2021.
Aleksander Hemon is an acclaimed writer best known for his novel The Lazarus Project (2008), a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Among his other accolades, he won the 2011 PEN/W.G. Sebald Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”
Hemon was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia (then part of Yugoslavia), in 1964, and studied at the University of Sarajevo. He was visiting the United States when war erupted in Bosnia in 1992 and was unable to return. He explores his displacement and lamentation for his destroyed childhood city in many of his works, including his 2002 novel Nowhere Man about a Bosnian refugee and his 2013 autobiography The Book of My Lives.
Hemon’s short stories have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, The Paris Review, and other major publications, and compiled into two collections. He has also written essays, criticism, and scripts for television and cinema.
He is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines how creativity is the very essence of our humanity. 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.
David Gray: To an outsider, it looked 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 of my own life.
And, exiled from his homeland, writer Aleksandar Hemon witnessed from afar the horrors of the Bosnian war. He vowed to never let the world forget.
Aleksandar Hemon: For displaced people that, the primary mode of agency is telling a 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.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
David Gray almost didn’t survive infancy. And though he was too young to remember, he’s never lost touch with his early struggles.
David Gray: I was starving for the first few weeks in my life. I think that this wailing, this noise I make is as a sort of comfort thing. I’m letting something out.
Gray was born 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 were pivotal in forming his character.
Gray: I was one of the first babies in the UK to have the operation, so I’m lucky to be alive, number one. The operation was a 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 oversensitivity 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.
David Gray was born in the Manchester suburbs of northwestern England. When he was nine his family moved to Solva, a small fishing village in Wales. His parents founded an artisanal 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.
Gray: Our neighbor was a fisherman 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 Solva, across St. Brides bay, picked up pots all the way, mackerel fished for our breakfast, which was cooked on the gas hob in the boat cabin with bread and butter, that was it, fresh mackerel, that was 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 hadn’t even managed to start to imagine. And it was a transformative experience. And on another version of this journey, a 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 buoy 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.
These and other miraculous things in the natural world would 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, Clashnarrow Studios near John O’Groats in Scotland, one of the most northerly points of great Britain.
Gray: 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 frisson. It gives it a sort of identity.
But that journey from the wild westerly shores of Wales to those of Ireland was neither easy nor straightforward. Gray’s commitment to creativity came early and faltered rarely.
Gray: 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.
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, while 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 from British music lovers, and Gray was often close to despair. But across the Irish Sea, 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?
Gray: I remember that 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.
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.
Gray: I was basically in the wilderness for a couple of years, and 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.
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 and machine drums and synths, juxtaposed with deeply heartfelt lyrics, stories of a young man struggling to find his place in the world, struggling to, so to speak, “let go of his heart, let go of his head.”
Gray: 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, 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 it.
Gray self-released White Ladder in 1998, and it 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.
Gray: 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.
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 he has been constantly grateful that his audiences allowed him to grow, and grown with him.
Gray: 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.
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 produced those early heart-wrenching songs, to be replaced by more mature, more contemplative work.
Gray: 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. It’s a fairly resolved thing.
Aleksandar 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.
Aleksandar Hemon: In my particular case, and place where I’m coming from, in my family, there’s a perpetual fear, conscious/unconscious that our experience, 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.
Aleksandar, or Sasha, Hemon was born in 1964 in Sarajevo in what was then Yugoslavia. His most cherished childhood memories were 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 a hunger in young Sasha for nostalgia, for people in places that only the collective memory of shared stories can access.
(Excerpt from Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You)
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.
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 Republika” for the newspaper Naši Dani.
Hemon: I get energized and get involved with the world, but by virtue of by way of writing. That’s why I do it, that’s my high.
As Yugoslavia came close to collapsing, Hemon was chosen for a cultural exchange program in the US. He would have returned to Sarajevo, but got stranded in Chicago when the Bosnian war broke out in April, 1992. Forced into exile, Hemon learned on CNN that his neighbors were being butchered and his beloved Sarajevo was being destroyed.
(Excerpt from Hemon’s The Book of My Lives)
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 seemed 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.
In Chicago, Hemon had little money, no family, no job, no visa, and 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, Hemon felt those words were not his to use. At the same time, his proficiency in English was barely sufficient for life in America.
(Excerpts from Hemon’s “Pathologically Bilingual”)
My first legal job was canvassing door to door for Greenpeace, for which I was trained by a nineteen-year-old named Jim…At some point, Jim, somewhat annoyed by me, asked me: “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 just 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.
As the war progressed and the world found out about the genocide being carried out by elements of the Bosnian Serb army against Bosnian Muslims, some intellectuals Hemon respected and admired publicly dismissed the events, and supported the Serbian nationalist president Slobodan Milošević. The urge to write about Bosnia and Yugoslavia grew more vital for Hemon. 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.
(Excerpts from Hemon’s “Pathologically Bilingual”)
I read and read, at first underlining words on the page to look them up later in my Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which I’d brought with me…I couldn’t read as much as I needed to because I was working, so I enrolled in a masters 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, discover 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.
Hemon 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.
Hemon: 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 Bosnian is 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.
In 1995 Aleksandar 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 Hemon became an American citizen. Hemon’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.
(Excerpt from Hemon’s Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls)
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 spurted 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.
Literary stardom happened almost immediately, but for Hemon becoming a great writer isn’t primarily a matter of personal pride and vanity. It’s about defining the threat of annihilation.
Hemon: History is, largely still to this day conceived of as stories of great, men usually, but of great individuals who have agency, and they were presidents, and they were leaders and they led the nation to whatever. But who tells stories of the rest of us, the nobodies, right? And so to me, the agency in the world, particularly for displaced people, the primary mode of agency is telling a story. I get to tell 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 place where I’m coming from, in my family, there’s a perpetual fear, conscious/unconscious that our experience, our existence in the world will be erased or could be erased. The 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 together 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.
Aleksandar Hemon’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.
Hemon: 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 Bosnian and the languages of the Western Balkans is really related to private property, and so obviously in socialism, or in poor societies where no one had private property, except very few people…I also think that, not to harp on this, 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 talked candidly about things like the first time they had sex, and yet no one was uncomfortable, right? Because there was no sin involved.
Aleksandar Hemon’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, Hemon still feels like an outsider, speaking a different language.
Hemon: 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 sort of the, 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.
Aleksandar Hemon has most likely reached his goal of preserving the memory of his family and of a place for future generations to know and care about. Whatever he does next, he’ll no doubt also challenge our preconceived notions of who gets to tell the story, what gets told, and why.