Kosal Khiev, an ex-convict from Cambodia, paces hurriedly across the front of the conference room, among what seemed like hundreds of students, a sea of blue, eager to hear his story. The clothes that he sported, a purple shirt and black suit jacket, looked rather casual and fun on him, and mirrored the way he talked to the audience and his personality. He spoke with a slight accent, and connected with the students as if he were one of them. Kosal, who, nowadays, is a well-known poet, has become an inspiration to young, aspiring students and adults alike.
Kosal eagerly shares his experience of having grown up in a different, tough place, and how he was a foreigner in his own country. He talks about how, when he was just a year of age, he and his family moved from the refugee camp where he was born, Kao-I-Dang, in Cambodia, to a desolated neighborhood in Santa Ana in California, where they resided as refugees. He talks of his experiences growing up there, and what it was like for him and his family. Kosal explained that, throughout his childhood, his parents were rarely at home, as they were working multiple jobs to provide for the family, and his siblings, three brothers and three sisters, were busy going to school. He spent a big part of his childhood with his grandmother, who took great care of him as he grew up.
When questioned, Kosal explains how, when he was only fourteen years old, he was introduced to the gangs within the town, and about how, only two years later, at the young age of sixteen, he was involved in a gang shoot-out where two people were shot and injured. After years of being involved in gangs and occasional incidents such as this, Kosal was convicted of attempted murder and ended up serving time in jail as an adult. He explained that he feels sorry for the choices he had made, and admitted that, choosing to be a part of a gang and how it, ultimately, led to him being imprisoned, was was because, at that point in his life, he just wanted to belong and be a part of something. He was lonely, he claimed, and needed a way to connect with others. Kosal eagerly shared this experience, making it clear that, however negative the impact of the events might’ve been at the time, they served as a great influence to a start of his career in poetry.
But serving time did not stop Kosal from achieving one of the greatest things that he had in his life. “Your lowest point hits you hardest at the beginning because you're totally cut off,” he explained, describing his first times in jail. “But, at the end, you become conditioned and used to it, almost numb to it, in a sense,” he continued and described how the loneliness and tediousness of spending time in a jail cell sparked his unknown, deep interest in poetry. During the time he served, Kosal worked on many poems. He spent his time writing, and some of his earliest pieces were written in honour of his grandmother, whom he missed very dearly. He unfortunately added that, after he served his time, he lost all of the fourteen years of work, pain and reflection that he had created.
Along with the other presenters of the Writers’ Fortnight event, Kosal Khiev has made a tremendous impact on students of all ages who aspire to write, teaching them about how working through even the deepest of struggles can change your life. The event allows students to learn about backgrounds and motivations of some of the best of writers, and helps us focus on ways we could improve and create an impact on ourselves and others through our writings also.