Nguyen Chi Thien, a poet internationally renowned for his writings composed during 27 years in prison under Vietnam’s communist government, died Tuesday at the age of 73 in California.
He had been admitted to Western Hospital in Santa Ana on Sept. 26, according to Dinh Quang Anh Thai, assistant to the publisher of the California-based Ngnoi Viet daily news, who visited with Thien on Thursday.
“He could speak, but he looked and sounded exhausted,” Thai told RFA.
Thien, a bachelor, passed away early in the morning on Tuesday, surrounded by friends and admirers of his work.
Known as Vietnam’s “preeminent prisoner” by his compatriots and admirers, Thien wrote some 700 poems—some as long as 500 lines—criticizing the one-party Communist government and imagining a future for his country free of oppression and full of optimism.
Thien, who had been sentenced for works of “counter-propaganda,” was refused a pen and paper in prison, and was forced to compose his poems in his head before putting them to paper after his release.
Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a scholar and translator who published a book of Thien’s work in 1995, called his poetry “the product of his 27 years in prison.”
He said that while Thien was known for his “staunch anti-Communism,” he was admired because his poetry was “steeped in the Vietnamese tradition,” and inspired the Vietnamese people with imagery close to their hearts.
“He talks about a mother’s love, about the love of a country, about how his father tried to educate him to become a good man. And he talked about the future in a very optimistic tone, which is very unusual for a person in jail,” Bich said.
“[In his poems] he waits for that beautiful day where the babies’ diapers will win over the Red Flag—in other words that humanity will come back to Vietnam … The man had a great vision,” he said.
“That type of feeling, and thinking, and vision is very attractive to people … It was very close to the people’s feeling about the system.”
Decades in prison
Thien was born on Feb. 27, 1939 in Hanoi and lived with his parents and a sister during his youth.
He later joined the “Humanism Work” movement started by a group of North Vietnamese poets and writers who criticized the communist government through their poetry and writings, but was arrested and sentenced to a reeducation camp in 1961 for “counter-propaganda” poetry.
He was released in 1964, but was again arrested and sent to a labor camp from 1966 to 1977 on the same charges.
It was during this second stint in prison that Thien began to compose the poetry in his head that would later become “The Flowers of Hell.”
In 1979, he threw writings of his poetry to a guard inside the British Embassy, which passed it on to a Vietnamese scholar at London University.
The translation of his work later earned Thien the Rotterdam International Poetry Award in absentia in 1985.
His brazen act earned him 12 more years in the infamous Hoa Lo prison—also known as the Hanoi Hilton—beginning in 1979, during which time he nearly died from mistreatment when left in solitary confinement in 1985.
Bich said that Thien was subjected to various forms of torture during his time in Hoa Lo.
“He was subjected to quite a lot of [torture] at the beginning, but he was a person who could stand a lot of suffering,” Bich said.
“They would pull his elbows behind his back and tie them and pull him up to the ceiling. It hurts tremendously. Or they would put him in rusty feet shackles which would infect his ankles and make them swell up.”
But despite the suffering, Bich said that Thien remained critical of the communist government until his release in 1991.
When his work was first published in the U.S., some of it was published in Thien’s own handwriting, Bich said.
The guards at Hoa Lo confronted him with the handwriting and Thien admitted that the writing was his in an act of defiance.
“He said, ‘Sure, that’s me. In fact, if you want to make sure that it’s mine, I can even read it by heart for you.’ So he sat there and read for them several poems,” Bich said.
“That was enough to convince them that he was the author.”
Release from jail
Beginning in 1981, a number of human rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch, launched a campaign demanding Thien’s release.
Thien moved to the U.S. in 1995, four years after his release, to live with his older brother and wrote his second book of poetry, “The Flowers of Hell II,” comprised of work he composed during his final 12 years in prison. Nguyen Ngoc Bich translated and published the edition.
Thien went on to write his autobiography and a compilation of short stories based on his experiences in Hoa Lo.
He moved to Orange County, California in 2004 where, despite suffering from a number of illnesses he incurred during his 27 years of prison, he was an active member of the Vietnamese community and a vocal advocate for the democratization of Vietnam.
Reported by Viet Long for RFA’s Vietnamese service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.