The Cambodian-American deportee Kosal Khiev, 32, served 16 years in American prisons for attempted gang-related murder before he was sent back to Cambodia in March 2011. In prison he found passion and purpose in spoken word contests and poetry. His poem Broken Chains is featured in the Phnom Penh Noir short story collection, which features a selection of Phnom-Penh based tales. Julius Thiemann caught up with him to hear about the ‘noir’ in his life.
Classical “Noir” is about melancholic, lonely characters. You are a poetry slammer who goes on stage. How does you art fit into the “noir” genre?
I fit in there because I know darkness. But I was able to see light and was reborn in the darkness of prison when I served my time. I came in with 16 and left with 31.
In prison there is no kind of distraction. You are alone and have time to think. Everything you experience is more real and intense, even breathing.
You mentioned the loneliness in prison. Are you still lonely?
That’s the thing. I am caught up alone between the past, present, and future. The world around me is so fast one day I hope it will slow down. My heart is with my family I left so long ago. I promised my mum I would be part of the family again but I am still on my way of going home. I am still everything: the lonely kid, the young man in prison, the coming of age man who does poetry. Right now it’s a great experience to be in this book with all the other writers and I hope good things will come of it.
I don’t know what will be in the future but it is related to my present and my past.
What does the “ABANDONED” tattoo on your forearm tell about your past?
When I was 15 my mother sent me to Arcadia in Louisiana where I went to the New Bethany home for boys and girls. My mother didn’t know it was a slave labour camp owned by some white preacher dude. We were working in the fields and cut lumber. I tried to run away twice. The first time I ended up in some Bonnie and Clyde kind of trailer park with a guy that came with me after running through swamps for one night and day. The police picked us up at the trailer park. When we were sent back we had to stand for the whole night with our noses touching a wall. The second time I ran away and when I was caught again the preacher asked me “Ah, you want to run? Ok run…” I had to run until I collapsed. One kid was beaten black and blue while I was there. That happened all the time. He managed to send pictures of his injuries back home. The state shut down the camp for child abuse. Three months after I came back home I cut my case.
About the attempted gang related murder you went to jail for: how did you come to join the gang?
I was just trying to find identity and the world didn’t seem to offer it to me. I am not trying to make excuses but I lacked a father figure. A fatherly role model could have given me more orientation. Young boys need that to prove their manhood properly because aggressiveness and seeking honour and respect is in their DNA. If there is no father boys look up to the elder boys around them. Older boys pretend to be men and teach younger boys. They tell you ‘go out and kill this guy then you are a man’. That’s gang culture; it facilitates validation but there is no positive structure. It’s just about conflict with other gangs and nobody knows when and where it started. But the gang gave me a feeling of belonging somewhere and family and that I mattered. Now I really wonder how I could hate my own kind so much, my own species.
In Broken Chains you refer to love: what is your own concept of love and how does it sit alongside that hate you felt?
I betrayed the love of my family because I placed conditions on the love that my family was supposed to give me. I didn’t acknowledge them for who they are so I couldn’t bond with them. My mother said to me: “You have to graduate and I tell you this because I love you.” But then nobody from my family came to my graduation after 8th grade. I thought they didn’t care. I didn’t realise that they were just trying to survive and get by. They had seen war in Cambodia and lost so many people. I didn’t understand their attention was also immediate: putting food on our table and paying bills. That is why they couldn’t come to the graduation. But of course they loved me. Now my family made it in America and the next generation has time to go to their kids’ basketball tournaments and graduations.
Would you change the past if that were possible?
I believe in divine providence and I am what I am because I went through that. In my time in prison I went to speak to kids twice a month so they wouldn’t go on the wrong path like me. I was asked if I regret what I did and I said ‘no’. That sounds strange but if I hadn’t been in prison I couldn’t have had an influence on these kids. A couple of them came to me after a few years and thanked me because I have had a positive impact on them. Who knows what ripples they will create…
That sounds you are at peace with your past. In the foreword of Broken Chains you say you don’t want to speak about the past anymore, however. How does that go together?
I am stuck in my own head. Mostly I am not here, in the present. I am processing all the broken pieces of my life. In my head I am with my mum or in solitary confinement where I spent one year and a half. I spent half of my life in jail and sometimes I wished I could go back because I don’t know how to live here, dropped in this country Cambodia I didn’t know anything about. But I am trying my best to live my life here now. I live in moments. At this moment I am here.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]