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
1975 - from Flowers of Hell by Nguyen Chi
Thien translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich
Chi Thien was born in 1939 in Ha Noi.† His father worked as
an official in the municipal court and his mother sold small
necessities in the neighborhood.† At the end of 1946, when
the war between France and Vietnam broke out, his family
fled to their native village in the countryside.
The family returned to a more stable Ha Noi in 1949 and Thien
started school in private academies. After
the defeat of the French in 1954 he cheered the Viet Minh revolutionaries
as they also returned to the city, proud to invite soldiers
home to supper.
The drama of Nguyen Chi Thienís life begins in Haiphong, the
strongly Communist port city of northern Viet Nam.† When Thien
contracted tuberculosis in 1956 his parents sold their house
for money to treat their son and moved with him near his sister
and her family there.
The authorities already held Thien in suspicion, because his
brother had joined the National Army moving to South Vietnam.† One
day in December, 1960 Thien unwittingly stepped over the line
while covering the high school class of a sick friend.†
Thien noticed the history textbook taught that the Soviet
Union had defeated the Imperial Army of Japan in Manchuria,
bringing an end to World War II.† Oh no, he told his students,
the United States defeated Japan when they dropped the atomic
bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nguyen Chi Thien paid for this remark with three years and
six months in labor camps, on a sentence of two years.† He
met other literary men in jail, composed poems in his head
and learned them by heart.† In 1966 he was returned to prison
after a short release.
This time the police charged him with composing politically
irreverent poems that circulated in Ha Noi and Hai Phong.† He
denied it, and spent another eleven years and five months in
Authorities never brought him to trial, for lack of evidence,
but they had the right man.† The tubercular youth had become
an outlaw whose every step and breath counted the beat of verses,
poetry against oppression.
In 1977, two years after Saigon fell, Thien and other political
prisoners were released to make
room for officers of the Republic of Viet Nam.†† He had been
composing poems all the while, and now seized the opportunity
of freedom to write them down and bring his art to the world.
Two days after Bastille Day, on July 16, 1979,
Thien dashed into the British Embassy at Ha Noi with his manuscript
of four hundred poems.† He had prepared a cover letter in French,
but the embassy of France was too closely guarded.
British diplomats welcomed him and promised to send his manuscript
out of the country. When he got out of the Embassy, security
agents waited for him at the gate.† Dragged to Hoa Lo prison,
the famous Ha Noi Hilton now empty of US flyers, he spent another
twelve years in jail and prison camps, often in stocks in solitary
It came to a total of twenty-seven yearsí imprisonment.† But
meanwhile, the British diplomats kept their word.† Nguyen Chi
Thienís manuscript collection Flowers of Hell appeared
in Vietnamese in two separate editions overseas.
Nguyen Chi Thien had the great satisfaction of seeing a copy
of his book waved in his face by his angry captors.† He didnít
know that his poems also were translated into English, French,
German, Dutch, Chinese, Spanish, and Korean.† They were set
to music by the great Pham Duy and sung around the world.
While their author lay in irons, Thienís poems won the International
Poetry Award in Rotterdam in 1985.† Six years later the poet
was released from jail, as the socialist world collapsed in
1991.† He lived in Ha Noi under close watch by the authorities,
but his international following also kept an eye on Thien.
Human Rights Watch honored him in 1995.† That year he emigrated
to the United States, due to the intervention of Noburo Masuoka,
retired Air Force colonel, a career military officer who was
drafted into the U.S. Army from an internment camp for Japanese
Americans in 1945.†
After the normalization of relations with Viet Nam, Masuoka
was able to arrange special asylum for the poet in the United
States.† Thien went to Virginia, the home of his brother, Nguyen
Cong Gian, whom he had not seen for forty-one years.
Gian himself had lived America only since 1993.† A lieutenant
colonel in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, he had been
taken to a re-education camp in the North right after the fall
of Saigon in 1975, to remain for thirteen years.†
As if released from prison once more, Thien wrote down another
bookís worth of poems from memory.† The three hundred Vietnamese
poems and some select English translations were published in
In 1998, The International Parliament of Writers awarded Nguyen
Chi Thien a three-year fellowship in France.† He lectured around
Europe while he wrote and published a collection of short stories,
rooted in the reality of his years in Hoa Lo prison.
Nguyen Chi Thien returned from France to Orange County, California,
where he took the oath of American citizenship in 2004.† He
continues to improve his health and speaks regularly on humanitarian
issues of interest to the Vietnamese community.† For Nguyen
Chi Thienís life in his own words, click here.