By Ella Norvill- Grade 9
A few weeks ago, students at UWCSEA were lucky enough to have three fascinating people share their experiences with us for Writers Fortnight. Nic Dunlop, Christina Lau and Kosal Kiev gave us a glimpse into their lives and work, sharing their experiences and advice.For students who live in one of the safest countries in the world, hearing the life stories of these writers brought a sense of reality to experiences we are unlikely ever to face.
Nic Dunlop, an Irish photojournalist, shared photos he took in his time in Cambodia, of injured people in hospitals and of the devastation caused by landmines. Nic soon became fascinated with the life of Duch, the former head of the Santebal, and began to search for him. In 1999, Nic found Duch completely by chance. “It was a weird experience, because on the one hand, it was extremely ordinary, and yet the content of the conversation was so extraordinary.” His stories of countries and events in the relatively recent past had us all captivated. I was struck by the fact that Nic was uneasy with himself for exploiting the suffering of the Cambodian people for artistic reasons. "I realized I was participating in another person’s sufferings and vulnerability and exploiting their memory still further and for much more nebulous reasons.” Like us, Nic lives in a safe and free country, he travelled to Cambodia as a tourist, yet his work did make a difference to the lives of the people he photographed. Nic’s experiences and photographs somehow made the shocking events in Cambodia seem more real to all of us who live in comfortable Singapore.
Christina Lau was a prison officer before a car accident in 2005 left her with severe disabilities. She is a member of the mouth and foot painting artists, and advocates for more action to help people with disabilities. She was very open with us, explaining that the accident had thrown her life of course, and was something she never would have imagined happening to her. It was fascinating to watch every student in the room have a moment of realisation that Christina wasn’t fundamentally different from us, and that we weren’t guaranteed a life without disability anymore than she had been. Christina is still living a life of pain, inconvenience and dependence, but she told us that she wouldn’t avoid the accident if she could, saying “I want to show people that disabled is not unable”. To me she is an incredibly brave and selfless woman. I would like to think that I would show such courage if I shared her fate.
Kosal Khiev’s journey from convicted criminal to successful poet, was all the more captivating because of the way he told it. He performed a piece of poetry, then allowed us to ask questions about his life, giving the session a very open and honest feeling. He was easy to relate to, and that helped us to understand his life and journey, despite the fact that his struggles could not be further from our own experiences. Kosal shared the events that led to him being incarcerated for attempted murder, and told us what life is like in a maximum security prison. “Lot’s of people are scared, [...] fear is contagious”. His fall into crime was a shock, as it was easy for us to understand. Often criminals are portrayed as evil people, incapable of guilt or redemption, but Kosal said ”I'm not proud of hurting anyone. I wish I never did. But I got locked up at 16, and I got tried as an adult... why would you throw away the key? Then you're saying that this kid has no more redemption." This made me think about justice from an offender’s rather than a victim’s point of view, whether justice systems should be about retribution or rehabilitation.
Singapore is one of the safest countries and we are unlikely to ever experience events and struggles such as those described to us during Writer’s Fortnight. However, the stories the speakers shared with us really bought home the harsh reality of life in the wider world and made us think about our own place in it. Despite being only 18 years ago, the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath seems a world away. Yet Nic Dunlop’s words and photos conveyed the fact that this was a very real tragedy, and for many people the repercussions continue to this day. Christina Lau’s story is one which is closer to home, none of us are immune from traffic accidents. Hearing about Christina’s accident and how it changed her life was at once a frightening reality check and an inspiration. Kosal Kiev’s journey was also alarmingly understandable. Given the same circumstances of disadvantage and violence we could imagine ourselves following the same path, but would we rise above it as he did? Kosal’s story certainly made me ponder the nature of crime and punishment and question my beliefs about justice. Each speaker’s story challenged and inspired us, the events they described of life outside of our comfortable bubble encouraged us to empathise with others, and think about what we can do to help.
Dunlop, Nic. "Nic Dunlop: When I Found Duch Living in the Jungle I Never Believed He Would Answer for His Crimes." The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 2010. Web. 08 Feb. 2017. <http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/nic-dunlop-when-i-found-duch-living-in-the-jungle-i-never-believed-he-would-answer-for-his-crimes-2036198.html>
Gluckman, Ron. "The Lost Executioner." Cambodia's Lost Executioner Found in Nic Dunlop's New Book. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <http://www.gluckman.com/CambodiaBook.html>.
O'Toole, James. "Nic Dunlop, the Irish Photographer Who Uncovered Duch Living in Anonymity, Reflects on His Discovery and on the Man He Found." Phnom Penh Post. Post Media Co Ltd 888 Building H, 8th Floor, Phnom Penh Center Corner Sothearos & Sihanouk Blvd Sangkat Tonle Bassac120101 Phnom Penh Cambodia, 26 July 2010. Web. 08 Feb. 2017. <http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/nic-dunlop-irish-photographer-who-uncovered-duch-living-anonymity-reflects-his-discovery>.
"Christina Lau Lay Lian." MFPA. N.p., 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2017. <http://mfpa.com.sg/artists/christina-lau-lay-lian/>.
Shay, Christopher. "From Teenage Gangster to Exiled Poet: New Documentary Follows Kosal Khiev." Al Jazeera America. N.p., 26 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2017. <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/4/26/cambodian-son-documentaryexile.html>.
Raguraman, Anjali. "Cambodian Spoken Word Artist Kosal Khiev Went from Prison to Poetry." The Straits Times. N.p., 17 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Feb. 2017. <http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/from-prison-to-poetry>.
Cheung, Helier. "Kosal Khiev's Journey from Prison to Poetry." BBC News. BBC, 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-24923096>.
Dunlop, NIc. Photo by Nic Dulop. Digital image. LUZ. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://luz.it/authors/nic-dunlop>
Christina Lau painting. Digital image. MFPA. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://mfpa.com.sg/artists/christina-lau-lay-lian/>.
Shay, Christopher. In a still from "Cambodian Son," Kosal Khiev performs one of his poems in London. Digital image. Aljazeera America. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/4/26/cambodian-son-documentaryexile.html>.