The author of Hoa Dia Nguc (Flowers of Hell) burst into legend when he brought his manuscript of poems composed in his memory while
imprisoned in Communist jails in North Vietnam to the British Embassy in Hanoi in July, 1979.
Although he did not think he could survive another prison term, having been sent to labor camps since 1961 (when he was 22 years old) he took
the chance and was arrested outside the gates of the British Embassy in Hanoi.
The next eight years Nguyen Chi Thien spent at Hoa Lo Prison -- the "Hanoi Hilton" made famous by American flyers. This was 1979. The
Communists had won after invading South Vietnam, and now were attacking Cambodia. In 1985 his poetry against the Communist regime of
Vietnam won the International Poetry Prize in Rotterdam.
As his international literary stature grew, so the conditions of his imprisonment grew more harsh. He spent eight of the twelve years between
1979 and 1991 in solitary darkness.
His sister, twelve years older than Thien, sent the photo above taken in 1978 to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Vietnamese
overseas -- everywhere to make the world know his plight in order to save her brother. Heads of state began to write the Hanoi ministry:
Leopold Senghor (who was also a prison poet), John Major of England, King Hussein of Jordan. The French director Michel Deville made a
moving piece of letter-writing for Contre L'Oubli (Never Forget), a powerful documentary on concentration camps. The BBC, having access to
his manuscript, made a television plea for release. His only crime was poetry.
Finally, in 1991, the Vietnamese government prepared to release him after twenty-seven years imprisonment. The photo below was taken
shortly before this release in October, 1991. The pictures you see here, from 1978 to 1991, show the effect of twelve years of imprisonment
under starvation conditions. The "prison poet" weighed less than eighty pounds.
Chi Thien brought this picture to the USA when he immigrated under a special humanitarian arrangement in November1995. He published it as
the cover of his first book of poems of the 1979-1988 period (when he grew too weak to create further). It was selected to be part of the
exhibition on Vietnamese Americans at the Smithsonian Institution in January, 2007, but deleted from the traveling exhibition.
Nguyen Chi Thien became an American citizen in October 2004. He passed away in Orange County, California, on October 02, 2012..
|Nguyen Chi Thien at Ba Sao Prison, July, 1991. Photo taken in the office
of the Chief of Security. After eight years of solitary darkness the poet
is still unwilling to swear allegiance to Communism. He won the battle
of will with the power of his mind. Chi Thien predicted the fall of
communism in Russia that occurred the following month. He also
predicted, in his poetry, the need for Vietnamese people to "make of
themselves a raft" and leave their homeland in order to survive.
|This site was designed and written by Jean Libby, historian
and assistant to Mr. Thien for his English language materials.
|As well as the
manuscript, the poet
brought his picture
taken the previous year
(1978) to prove his
identity to the free
"An Autobiography" in Manoa,
Pacific Journal of International
Mr. Thien's first original
publication in English, the
Viet Nam Literature Project
Watch the film/phim
Nguyen Chi Thien Vietnamese
by Jean Libby