Whilst National Poetry Day is a time for celebration, we would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien, one of PEN’s most emblematic cases, who sadly passed away on Tuesday, 2 October 2012.
Inside the prison trap of steel
Inside the prison trap of steel,
I want to see no streams of tears,
And laughter I want even less to hear.
I want that each of us
clamp tight his jaws,
withdraw his hands from everything,
refuse to be a buffalo, a dog.
Soak up this truth: this jail will last
As long as it holds buffalos and dogs.
Unless we are mere clay
we shall stay men.
from Flowers from Hell
(Translated by Huynh Sanh Thong)
Nguyen Chi Thien was born in February 1939 in Hanoi, Vietnam. In 1960 a friend asked him to teach one of his classes as he was ill. In the lesson Chi Thien told the students that America had defeated Japan in World War Two, not the Soviet Union which the official curriculum claimed.
Nguyen was soon arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment on the charge of spreading ‘anti-propaganda’. During what turned out to be a three and a half year incarceration he composed ‘almost a hundred poems’ (committing them to memory). He was briefly released in 1964, but was soon re-arrested on the charge of producing ‘politically irreverent poems’. For this offence, and without trial, he was to serve 11 years in prison camps before being temporarily released in July 1977 because there was no room in the crowded camp for cope with the increasing flow of new prisoners coming from South Vietnam. Denied employment, Nguyen composed a further four hundred poems.
After the end of the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, afraid of being unable to survive if re-arrested, Nguyen decided to send his ‘incriminated’ poems abroad. In July 1979, braving security police, he handed his handwritten manuscript to diplomats at the British embassy after extracting a promise that the poems would be published. Upon leaving the embassy he was arrested by Vietnamese security forces and imprisoned for a further twelve years.
Nguyen Chi Thien was freed in October 1991 after international interventions, including by PEN members, and granted asylum in the U.S.A., where he was invited to address Congress. Between 1998 and 2001 he lived in France where he had been awarded a fellowship by the International Parliament of Writers. His Hoa Lo Prison Stories, a prose narrative of his imprisonment’s experiences, was translated and published in English as The Hoa Lo / Hanoi Hilton Stories by Yale Southeast Asia Studies in 2007. He returned to America and he settled in California where he continued to write until his death earlier this week, at the age of 73. Our thoughts are with his friends and family.