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Khmerican ex-con turns over new leaf in Phnom Penh arts scene


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Exiled Khmerican and former prison inmate Kosal Khiev is bringing energy and attitude to Cambodia’s arts scene through poetry and the spoken word, and he’s discovering new ways of producing art in Phnom Penh.

The power in his voice grabbed the audience at a poetry jam at the Java Gallery last month, where he recited a selection of his poems including Why I Write and Earthy.

His breakout into Phnom Penh’s poetry scene also earned him the chance to host the Body Poetry Jam at the Java Gallery Café this Saturday at 7.30pm.

His work brings a fresh attitude to the city – West Coast flavour with some Asian spice. Not a rapper, but a poet, Kosal’s message is set to “trickle to the masses, to spark the world and get reborn in the ashes.”

Kosal is certainly on the way to creating a new identity for Cambodian youth. With the help of local production company Studio Revolt, where he is the resident artist, he recently produced a deviant video of Why I Write, and is launching other projects to revamp the urban arts scene.

With an increasing number of exiled Khmericans and a growing number of underground artists in the country, Kosal is looking to unite and lead a new movement. Although his Khmer is still shaky, he’s been working with Klapyahandz, a newly established independent hip hop crew that’s creating a new style of Cambodian music.

The poet also hopes that his energy will lead him to the White House.  Along with his fellow Khmericans, Kosal submitted the video My Asian Americana to a National American video competition. The video features Kosal and his colleagues reminiscing about their childhoods in the US, while stressing the fact they can never return.

The video competition will give winners a trip to meet the US president, a visit that Kosal hopes would bring an end to his exile.

Besides writing poems, Kosal paints as well. “I just got some oil pastels and some new canvas so I’m going to try that for a bit” he said. “I used to sketch, but I never spent the time on it, so I’m going to work at it now.”

But Kosal doesn’t just paint on paper. He can transform the body as well, and has started a tattoo business in Phnom Penh called Exiled Ink.

He is also working on semiautobiographical story set in Phnom Penh following three American exiles trying to make a new life in Cambodia, but going about it in very different ways.

And if that wasn’t enough, Kosal also volunteers as a creative writing and spoken word teacher at A New Day Cambodia. There he spends a couple hours each week teaching kids how to write stories and short poems to increase their vocabulary and be confident in their creative abilities.

The son of a Cambodian family, Kosal Khiev was born in a refugee camp on the Thai border, and eventually his family made it to California.

Like many refugee families, Kosal grew up in low-income slums, far removed from the American Dream. During his teenage years he was involved in a gang and the violence that ensues. He was arrested for attempted murder and spent the next 14 years in prison.

Kosal spent his late teens and early adult years in a prison system which saw him immersed in a world of violence. Before embracing poetry and art, he learnt to make a knife with thinly rolled newspaper and soap, coated with wax. He would sleep with his shoes on, ready to jump out of bed in a second.

He recounts one afternoon when a Mexican gang smuggled home-made knives into the mess-hall in order to settle a dispute with their Caucasian counterparts. “It was insane; the Mexicans told everyone that it was going down and just to stay out the way, so we were just sitting there and all of a sudden they pulled out the knives. Didn’t matter if you were in the gang, old, young, whatever, if you were white, you were getting cut,” he said.

“So as soon as it started, the gates went down and everyone was stuck inside. Then the guards started shooting gas cans and rubber bullets in the room. Boom… Booom…Everybody else just stood out the way at the back, coughing and gagging, and we just watched the whites and the Mexicans get at it… like thirty white dudes went to hospital that day.”

Kosal also spent a year in solitary confinement, a punishment that turned his life around. During this time alone, spoken word and poetry became a channel and an escape for Kosal.

After a year in the hole, Kosal began to work his way up and out, and met poets and mentors who he said “helped me channel all my aggression and sadness into the creative writing that became a tool for expression.”

Kosal Khiev was set to be released on parole in 2010 but under an Aggravated Felony Provision directed at US permanent residents, Kosal was exiled to Cambodia. Instead of stepping into freedom after 14 years of imprisonment, he was picked up by the American Immigration Department and held in custody for another nine months.

When Kosal first arrived in Cambodia, he went to live with his extended family on a farm in Battambang. An alien in his ancestors’ home, his Khmer was shaky and he was labeled an outsider.

His family suggested that he settle down and work the farm. But settling down was the last thing on Kosal’s mind. “I couldn’t do it,” he said. “Farm-life was too slow. There was nothing for me out there.”

He left the quiet countryside for Phnom Penh, where he has forged a new creative life.

“This is a great time for Cambodia, man, it’s happening right here, and we’re all just trying to be part of it,” he said.

Kosal Khiev will host and perform in the Body Poetry Jam at the Java Gallery Cafe on January 14 at 7:30pm.

His poems, videos and art can be found on www.spokenkosal.com.

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