He composed, edited and revised some 700 poems without committing a single one to paper. All were stored in his head. Because he was a poet. Because he had nothing to write with or write on. Because for nearly three decades he was in prison and labor camps.
At 21, he was what we call a substitute teacher, in his case filling in for a friend who taught high school history. He noticed that the class textbook claimed that the Soviet Union had brought about the Japanese surrender in World War II. He told the students that this wasn’t so, that Japan had surrendered after the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He was arrested and sentenced, without trial, to three and a half years’ hard labor. Composing poems in his head began.
Two years of freedom followed, during which he would recite his poems covertly to close friends. The poems began to circulate orally. Again he was arrested, this time on suspicion of having written the poems. Nearly a dozen years in re-education camps ensued, without trial.
His imprisonment could end as soon as he signed the paper saying he was wrong, Ho Chi Minh was the hero of the Vietnamese people and Communism was paradise. He refused.
At 38, he was released, along with many other political prisoners. This was two years after South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam, which then went about cleaning out jails to make room for the thousands of South Vietnamese officials targeted for prison.
While he might be free for the moment, he knew his chances of rearrest were great. Moreover, he feared he might not survive another incarceration––and his work would die with him.
In secret, he set down on paper as many poems as he could recall. About 400, which took him three days of continuous writing.
He carried the manuscript to the British Embassy, evading the guards long enough to slip inside. He asked for asylum. He was told this wasn’t possible. He asked the British officials to see that his poems reached the West. That, he was told, they would do.
On leaving the embassy, he was arrested and spent another twelve years in prison, three of them in solitary confinement.
During this time, unknown to him, his manuscript was attracting notice throughout the world. Published as “Flowers From Hell” by Yale University, it won the Rotterdam International Poetry Award. He of course was given the award in absentia because, among other reasons, no one knew where he was, or whether he was even alive.
The award sparked the attention of human rights groups, which discovered his whereabouts and lobbied on his behalf. At age 52, weighing 80 pounds, he was released from prison, though still not free. Four years of house arrest followed before he was allowed to emigrate to the United States.
At 73, he died in Santa Ana, California on the second of this month, October 2012, according to the New York Times obituary from which this narrative is compiled.
He is 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 the Vietnamese language, according to one of his translators, the Times reported.
Despite his literary stature, he lived very modestly within the Orange County California Vietnamese community. He occupied a series of rented rooms, sustained partly by public assistance and donations from supporters. He spent his time reading, writing, lecturing, and making political broadcasts on Vietnamese-language radio and television stations throughout the United States.
According to the translator mentioned above, he cared so little about money that when people invited him to speak and would collect money to give him, most of the time he would refuse. “Give it to people who need it more than I,” he’d say.
His name is Nguyen Chi Thien. He is a man to remember anytime we’re tempted to overlook the importance of continually answering for ourselves who we will be or die trying.
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