Kyle James

journalist/writer/media development consultant

Rejected at home in the US, poet embraced by Olympics


Kosal Khiev

Kosal Khiev

(Published in The Advisor on May 3, 2012)

It was something of a bolt out of the blue. One day, Cambodian-American spoken-word artist Kosal Khiev got a call from Studio Revolt, where he’s currently the artist-in-residence. They needed to talk to him.

Next thing he knew, he found out he had been chosen to be Cambodia’s representative at the Poetry Parnassus, the poetry component of the literary festival that will be held in the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It’s the largest event of its kind.

“I never saw it coming,” the 32-year-old said, adding that to this day, he doesn’t know who nominated him. “I think that’s just amazing that you can have an impact on people that you don’t know you have.”

On June 26, Kosal will go to London to take part in poetry readings and workshops with poets from the other 203 competing nations as part of the cultural Olympiad. One project is to “bomb” central London with 100,000 works from the participating poets.

“Instead of destructive bombs, they’re bombing love and the thoughts of poets who are trying to inspire, change and motivate,” he said.

Kosal’s own journey is one that has involved recent change, upheaval even, but which has provided a good deal of motivation for young people here in Cambodia. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Kosal’s family went to the United States when he was one, and he grew up there, immersed in American culture. But clashes with the law, a long stint in prison and the toughening of immigration rules in the wake of the 9/11 attacks saw Kosal being deported to Cambodia a little over a year ago—to a land he didn’t really know.

But since that time, he has flourished, finding a spiritual home here, honing the craft he began to practice behind bars and helping young people learn to express themselves through language.

In the lead-up to the trip to the UK, a country Kosal has never visited and where he will spend over two weeks, he is working on new material and with Studio Revolt to document the whole process. One of his dominant themes these days is the idea of Cambodia as a mother, who at one point in the not-too-distant past was sick and hurting. She couldn’t take care of her kids and in a way, told them to leave and go live elsewhere.

“She said, ‘when I am better, I will call you back’” Kosal said. “And now, I feel like Cambodia has called me home.”

He hopes that his participation in the trip can introduce more people around the world to Cambodia and give them a richer picture of the country, not one dominated by war and genocide. He wants to show them how far the country has come.

“The thing is, me and Cambodia, we have a similar story,” he said. “I don’t want to downplay what happened here, but we both come from struggle and adversity, and we survived.”

He added: “I think that’s why I was chosen. My story represents hope and survival, and that’s what Cambodia is about. I hope I can make the country proud.”

WHAT: Cambodian-American Kosal Khiev at the Poetry Parnassus

WHERE: Southbank Centre

WHEN: June 26 – July 1, 2012

WHY: Poets of the world, unite!

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