By Anh Do, Los Angeles Times
October 5, 2012
Poet Nguyen Chi Thien, a familiar figure in Orange County's Little Saigon, wrote about democracy and his persecution in North Vietnam. He died Tuesday at 73.
Nguyen Chi Thien's “whole life has been a lonely life, and it touched his thinking,” said friend and fellow democracy activist Doan Viet Hoat. “It made him the person he is. And he is someone who understands humanity, society and the regime” in Hanoi. (Triet Tran / June 14, 2012)
The poet was a familiar figure, striding through Little Saigon, sipping tea, sharing wisdom, his head covered with his trademark fedora. He liked to read through the night, not too tired to dissect a bit of homeland politics.
He lived simply, renting rooms in other people's homes, wearing the same suits for appearances, offering thanks for gifts of fruit and books. Early Tuesday, he died just as quietly in a Santa Ana hospital after suffering chest pain.
Nguyen Chi Thien, 73, the acclaimed author of "Flowers From Hell," was revered for his modesty and creativity, thriving through 27 years of imprisonment, much of it in isolation.
"For him to live that long, in an existence that dramatic, is precious," said Doan Viet Hoat, a friend and fellow democracy activist.
"I think his whole life has been a lonely life, and it touched his thinking," he said. "It made him the person he is. And he is someone who understands humanity, society and the regime" in Hanoi.
In 1960, while working as a substitute teacher at a high school in his homeland, he opened a textbook stating that the Soviet Union triumphed over the Imperial Army of Japan in Manchuria, bringing an end to World War II. That's not true, he explained to students. The United States defeated Japan when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nguyen, born in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 1939, paid for his remark with three years and six months in labor camps, charged with spreading propaganda, according to the online Viet Nam Literature Project.
In jail, Nguyen began composing poems in his head, memorizing them. Police arrested him again in 1966, condemning his politically irreverent verses, distributed in Hanoi and Haiphong, and sending him back to prison, this time for more than 11 years. He was released in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon.
In 1979, he walked into the British Embassy in Hanoi with a manuscript of 400 poems, according to the Viet Nam Literature Project. British diplomats promised to ferry his poetry out of the country.
Jailed again, he spent the next 12 years at Hoa Lo prison — infamous as the Hanoi Hilton.
While he was locked up, his collected writings were published as "Flowers From Hell," initially in Vietnamese, then translated into English, which helped him win the International Poetry Award in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1985. An anthology of his poems later became available in French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
"He represents a devotion to imagination and to intellect. He was very concerned with what I consider to be a great theme of Vietnamese literature — piercing beyond illusion," said Dan Duffy, founder of the Viet Nam Literature Project.
"He not only survived all those years" in captivity, Duffy added, "he glowed with special insight."
By 1991, as socialism crumbled in Europe, Nguyen emerged from prison with a worldwide following. Human Rights Watch honored him in 1995 — the same year he resettled in the United States.
"He couldn't sit still too long, for he had been forced to be still. His life became his work. He's still here. He's immortal," said Jean Libby, who launched vietamreview.net and who edited Nguyen's prison prose, "Hoa Lo/Hanoi Hilton Stories."
Nguyen was hospitalized at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana and underwent testing for lung cancer when he died. He had tuberculosis as a youth.
"He accepted the coming death. His mind and his spirit were always open," said author and human rights activist Tran Phong Vu, who remained at his friend's hospital bedside. The men had taped a TV cable show together on Vietnamese current events, sharing a final meal of My Tho noodles, just days before Nguyen's passing.
Nguyen never married and had no children.
But his work, stanzas that became as familiar as songs, keeping his soul alive in the darkness of confinement, continue to move the Vietnamese immigrant generation — and their sons and daughters. As translated by the journalist Nguyen Ngoc Bich, he wrote:
There is nothing beautiful about my poetry
It's like highway robbery, oppression, TB blood cough
There is nothing noble about my poetry
It's like death, perspiration, and rifle butts
My poetry is made up of horrible images
Like the Party, the Youth Union, our leaders, the Central Committee
My poetry is somewhat weak in imagination
Being true like jail, hunger, suffering
My poetry is simply for common folks
To read and see through the red demons' black hearts.
By MARGALIT FOX, New York Times
Published: October 7, 2012
Photo : http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/10/07/nyregion/dog-NGUYEN1-obit/dog-NGUYEN1-obit-articleLarge.jpg
The dissident poet Nguyen Chi Thien in 2008 in California. Jean Libby
It was not the isolation that was hardest to endure, though it lasted nearly three decades. Nor was it the cold of his cell, where he was often chained naked, nor summer’s blistering heat, nor the rusty shackles that infected his legs, nor the relentless hunger.
It was, Nguyen Chi Thien said afterward, the utter lack of access to the written word: no books, no newspapers and, more devastating still for a poet, not so much as a pencil or a scrap of paper.
He kept writing anyway, producing songs of love, howls of protest and hundreds of other poems — some 700 in all — each one composed, edited, revised and stored entirely in his head for a posterity he was not sure would come.
Photo : A younger Mr.Thien
Mr. Thien, a dissident writer who has been called the Solzhenitsyn of Vietnam for the sheaves of poems he wrote opposing the Communist government there — and for the prolonged imprisonment, including torture and solitary confinement, that his efforts earned him — died on Tuesday in Santa Ana, Calif. He was 73.
The apparent cause was respiratory illness, said Jean Libby, a friend who has edited English translations of his work. Mr. Thien, who was allowed to leave the country in 1995 and became a United States citizen in 2004, had been ill with emphysema for many years and had suffered from tuberculosis nearly all his life.
His health had been broken by his 27 years in Vietnamese prisons and labor camps, including half a dozen years in the “Hanoi Hilton” — the name, born of bitter irony, bestowed by captured American servicemen on the Hoa Lo Prison there.
Mr. Thien’s odyssey began on an otherwise ordinary day in 1960, after he had attempted to correct a piece of the Communists’ revisionist history before a class of high school students. By the 1980s and ’90s, his case had become an international cause célèbre, taken up by the human-rights group Amnesty International and the writers’ organization PEN International, among others.
Mr. Thien was considered one of the foremost poets of contemporary Vietnam, often mentioned in world literary circles as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Of the 700 poems he wrote in prison, “70 to 100 would be considered masterpieces in our language,” Nguyen Ngoc Bich, one of his translators, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Mr. Thien’s best-known work, the book-length verse cycle “Flowers From Hell” — which he managed to slip into Western hands, at great personal cost, during one of his rare moments of freedom — was published in the United States in English in 1984 and has been translated into many other languages.
In a poem from the collection, composed in prison camp in 1970, Mr. Thien wrote:
My poetry’s not mere poetry, no,
but it’s the sound of sobbing from a life,
the din of doors in a dark jail,
the wheeze of two poor wasted lungs,
the thud of earth tossed to bury dreams,
the clash of teeth all chattering from cold,
the cry of hunger from a stomach wrenching wild,
the helpless voice before so many wrecks.
All sounds of life half lived,
of death half died — no poetry, no.
For all his renown, Mr. Thien spent his last years quietly in the Vietnamese diaspora in Orange County, Calif., known as Little Saigon. He occupied a series of rented rooms and, most recently, a federally subsidized apartment in Santa Ana, reading, writing, lecturing and making political broadcasts on Vietnamese-language radio and television stations throughout the United States. He lived modestly, sustained partly by public assistance and donations from supporters but unable to afford medical insurance.
“He led an extremely austere life,” Mr. Bich said. “He cared so little about money that when people invited him to speak in various places, and they would collect money to give to him, most of the time he would refuse. He said, ‘Give it to other people who need it more than I.’ ”
The youngest child of a middle-class family, Nguyen Chi Thien was born in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 1939. He resolved early on to become a writer, a decision that in the Vietnam of the period was virtually synonymous with becoming a poet.
“The importance of poetry in Vietnamese literature is paramount,” Mr. Bich said. “It’s so paramount that until the end of the 19th century and even at the beginning of the 20th century, probably 95 percent of Vietnamese literature was in the form of poetry. We have history books that are written entirely in poetry.”
Photo : Poems by Mr. Thien published after British diplomats helped get them out of Hanoi.
In such a culture, the power of poetry to subvert is immense, and in Mr. Thien’s hands, it would be deemed a dangerous weapon.
The course of Mr. Thien’s life was determined in 1954, after his native country was partitioned into North and South Vietnam. His parents, believing the Communist leaders of the north would be good for the country, chose to keep the family in Hanoi.
Young Mr. Thien’s political troubles began in 1960, after he agreed to fill in for an ailing friend who taught high school history. He noticed that the students’ textbook falsely claimed that the Soviets had brought about the Japanese surrender in World War II.
Mr. Thien told the class that in fact, Japan had surrendered after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was arrested soon afterward.
He was sentenced, without trial, to three and a half years’ hard labor. It was then that he began composing poems in his head.
Released in 1964, Mr. Thien worked as a bricklayer, reciting his poems covertly to close friends. In 1966, he was arrested again on suspicion of having written those poems, which were by then circulating orally in Hanoi and elsewhere. He spent nearly a dozen years in North Vietnamese re-education camps, again without trial.
“All he had to do at any time was sign a paper saying he was wrong and Communism was right, and he could have walked away,” Ms. Libby said. “They offered him all this if he would say Ho Chi Minh is the hero and Communism is paradise.” Mr. Thien would not sign.
In 1977, two years after Saigon fell to the Communists, Mr. Thien was released along with many other political prisoners: Hanoi wanted to make room in its jails for the thousands of South Vietnamese officials it was then imprisoning.
He knew that his chances of rearrest were great, and he was not certain, he later said, that he would survive a third incarceration. He feared his work would die with him.
In secret, he set down on paper as many poems as he could recall — about 400 — which took three days of continuous writing. He took the manuscript to the British Embassy in Hanoi, where he managed to evade the guards long enough to slip inside.
He asked the British officials there for asylum, which they said they could not grant. He asked them to see that his poems reached the West, and that, they said, they would do.
On leaving the embassy, Mr. Thien was arrested and imprisoned without trial for the third time. He spent six years in Hoa Lo, three of them in solitary confinement, followed by another six years in prison camps.
Unbeknown to him, his manuscript was making its way around the world during this time, passed from hand to hand in Britain and the United States. In 1984, the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University published it as “Flowers From Hell,” translated by Huynh Sanh Thong.
The next year, the volume won the Rotterdam International Poetry Award, presented to Mr. Thien in absentia.
“Nobody knew where he was,” Ms. Libby said. “They didn’t know if he was alive or dead.”
The award brought Mr. Thien’s case to the attention of human-rights groups, which helped locate him and lobbied on his behalf. He was released from prison in 1991, weighing 80 pounds. After spending the next four years under house arrest in Hanoi, he was allowed to leave for the United States.
Mr. Thien never married. “He did have a few persons that he was in love with, and they were in love with him too,” Mr. Bich said. But then in jail, he wrote poems saying “that they should forget about him, because they’ll never know when he would be out.”
His survivors include a brother, Nguyen Cong Gian, and a sister, Nguyen Thi Hoan.
Mr. Thien’s other work in English translation includes “Flowers of Hell” (1996), a two-volume work translated and published by Mr. Bich, which comprises a new translation of the 1984 works plus an additional cycle of several hundred poems; and “Hoa Lo/Hanoi Hilton Stories,” a volume of short fiction published by the Council on Southeast Asia Studies in 2007.
Today, his poetry is also available in French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Czech, Korean and Chinese. It remains unavailable in Vietnam.
In the end, Mr. Thien’s work attained the posterity of which he had long dreamed. It was a prospect he allowed himself to imagine in “Should Anyone Ask,” composed in a prison camp in 1976:
Should anyone ask what I hope for in life
Knowing that I am in jail, you would say:
Knowing that I have been hungry, you would say:
Food and warmth!
No, no, you would be wrong, for in the Communist land
All these things are chimera
Whoever would hope for them
Must kneel in front of the enemy.
In the long struggle against the prison
I have only poetry in my bosom,
And two paper-thin lungs
To fight the enemy, I cannot be a coward.
And to win him over, I must live a thousand autumns!