Early on Tuesday, October 2nd , 2012, Nguyễn Chí Thiện, Vietnam dissident poet passed away quietly at 73 in a Santa Ana hospital after refusing life support.
He was one of Vietnam’s longest prisoner of conscience, spending a total of 27 years in various prison camps in North Vietnam.
Born in Hanoi in 1939, in a family of 6, his elder brother Nguyen Cong Gian joined Vietnam National Army and was the only one in his family to move South, and later rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the ARVN, after 1975, he too became a 13-year Hanoi's reeducation-camp prisoner. Thien initially welcomed uncle Ho’s Viet Minh soldiers into his home as liberators in 1954, but he and his family later regretted their earlier and short-lived enthusiasm.
In 1960, while substituting for a teacher-friend, he told the class that it was the United States who defeated Japan in 1945 after dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and not – as the textbook affirmed - that it was the Soviet Union who ended WWII by defeating Japan Imperial Army in Manchuria. This landed him in prison for 3 and a half years.
In prison he began composing his poems in his head and committed them to memory, sometimes by reciting them to his jailmates. In 1966, he was jailed again, this time for more than 11 years after his 'reactionary' poems were circulated in Hanoi and Hai Phong. Released in 1977, 2 years after the fall of Saigon, he lived under constant police surveillance.
In 1979, fearing that he may not be alive if imprisoned for the third time he determined to smuggle his poetry out of Vietnam, Thien made a bold attempt entering the British Embassy in Hanoi and requested British diplomats to ferry out his poetry collection of 400 poems to the free world, for this, he spent the next and last 12 years in prison, mostly at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where senator John McCain was once held.
His poetry first appeared in the U.S. in the early 80’s under the title “A cry from the Abyss” then published as “Flowers from Hell” when it was translated into English French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Czech and Korean. Thanks to this international following, Thien won the Rotterdam’s International Poetry Prize in 1985. In 1988, he also won the "Freedom to Write" award.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Thien was finally released in 1991 and resettled in the U.S. in 1995, the same year he was honored by Human Rights Watch.
"Death is inevitable, but still I could not help feeling an excruciating sense of loss and I wept! That night, I lay down, my face against the wall. I remembered the months and years we were together," was Thien's message to Phùng Cung, a dissident poet, his jailmate in his short autobiography. "I recalled the day we met for the first time at Phong Quang, on a sombre winter day when he was standing before a red pepper plant, gazing at the leaden grey sky with an equally leaden look on his face. Then, on the day when I said good-bye to him to leave for Saigon on my way to the United States, he had held my hands not wanting to let go, his eyes brimming with tears. Very early in the morning, drifting into a doze, I dreamed of the stars, the azure blue sails flying with the wind on the Milky Way, taking his soul to the Merciful Almighty! One day, when returning to Vietnam, there will be nothing I can do but to stand in silence before a cattle-trodden mound at the end of a hamlet, where his body has been laid to rest."
When America Rout
When America abandoned the South to the Communists
Global Power humilated, cries
In the midst of prison labor, disease, hardship
Poetry still shoots, with plenty of power and bullets
Because she knows tomorrow is far away but bright
And is not reserved for the Evil forces.
Although despair may spread
Anh hope dissipates
Nations and people ruminate in the dark plaintive night
Poetry is still there, still shackled to the wooden planks
Silent, bruising, persistent
Transform its heart into evil-buster glass to help the human world
See clearly the true Communist form
All will disintegrate, but the infinite power of poetry
Will conquer both time and space
Breaking down the rusty steel and iron of the enemy
(Nguyen Chi Thien, 1975)
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