A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Nguyen Chi Thien, Whose Poems Spoke Truth to Power, From a Cell, Dies at 73

The dissident poet Nguyen Chi Thien in 2008 in California. [Jean Libby]

“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.

Published: October 7, 2012, The New York Times

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.

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.
"Today, his poetry is also available in French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Czech, Korean and Chinese. It remains unavailable in Vietnam."
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.

A younger Mr.Thien
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.”
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!

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