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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

Nguyen 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 labor camps.

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 darkness.

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 1996.

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.


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