“There are times in my life moments in between the nights where I’ve laid bathed in my own grief / the streets are only memories / stories told with a glazy stare / knowing full well with a full heart that I should be there / not here / but that’s neither here nor there”
— Kosal Khiev, Moments In Between the Nights (2004)
Kosal Khiev was born in 1980 at a Thai refugee camp, the nationless son of Cambodian parents fleeing the ravages of genocide and war. His family was granted asylum a year later and resettled in Southern California, where Kosal grew up surrounded by poverty and violence. A gang shootout led to his arrest at 15 years old. He was tried as an adult under California law and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
It was in prison that Kosal renewed his relationship with his family and God, and discovered the art form that would help him channel his anger and sorrows into something positive: spoken word poetry. Kosal taught himself literature and history. He discovered spoken word, the oral tradition of poetry, from a fellow inmate through arts-in-correction programs. He began to share his writing with other inmates, counselors, and other at-risk youth.
But despite this personal transformation, and having paid his debt to society, Kosal was handed a second punishment. As a result of a 2002 repatriation agreement with Cambodia and the retroactive enforcement of the 1996 Immigration Act, Kosal’s felony conviction combined with his non-citizen status meant deportation upon prison release. Kosal was marked for automatic deportation upon his release in 2010. Kosal was immediately moved from prison into immigration detention until his deportation date.
On March 17, 2011, Kosal’s first step into freedom after 14 years in prison was in Cambodia- the country his family had fled before he was born. He was forced to fend for himself in an unknown homeland, armed only with the ability to turn adversity into lyrical verse. Just as writing had once helped him survive the isolation of prison, it now helped him express the anguish of deportation. With no documents, no money, and a body scarred in tattoos, Kosal would be forced to fend for himself, alone, in a foreign landscape with seemingly familiar faces. Working in all English in a country like Cambodia, limited his opportunities and visibility leaving Kosal homeless and penniless for months. Armed only with his passion for poetry, and ability to turn adversity into lyrical verses, Kosal forged forward. His poetry gave voice to the growing tide of deportees arriving in the country, and he soon became a prominent presence in Phnom Penh’s creative community. One day in 2012, Kosal received the biggest accolade of his life, an invitation to attend the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Kosal Khiev, ex-con, deportee, and reformed “troubled” youth was now selected from over 6,000 nominated poets to represent Cambodia at the world’s largest poetry gathering.
Cambodian Son takes place one year after his deportation to Cambodia. It is the story of one man’s triumph over life’s injustices through the redemptive power of art. And though it is one man’s story, it is also testament to one country’s broken and inhumane immigration system, and another country’s reconstruction and cultural renaissance after decades of war. It is post-conflict Cambodia, after all, that has given him a second chance at freedom and creativity. At a time when the United States is deporting more people than any other moment in its history, Cambodian Son is at once a beacon of hope and a call to action. It is the story of an exile searching for home, and finding his voice.
Visit Kosal’s website for more information.