The passing of a major Vietnamese dissident writer–silenced in Vietnam, acclaimed in the free world–is mourned by a friend and champion. Nguyen Chi Thien’s story of serial imprisonment and resistance is a parable of artistic choice for a not too distant generation.
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“Though death is inevitable, I could not help feeling an excruciating sense of loss as I wept! That night, I lay down with my face to the wall. I remembered the months and years together. I recalled the day we met at Phong Quang. On that dark, winter day, he stood before a red pepper plant staring at the leaden grey sky with an equally leaden gaze. On the day I said good-bye to him, as I left for Saigon on my way to the United States, he held my hands not wanting to let go, his eyes brimming with tears. Very early that morning, as I drifted back to sleep, I dreamed of the stars, azure blue sails flying in the wind across the Milky Way, leading his soul to the Merciful Almighty! One day, when I return to Vietnam, there will be nothing I can do but stand in silence before a cattle-trodden mound at the far end of a hamlet, where his body has been laid to rest.” (Nguyễn Chí Thiện recalls his jail-mate, poet Phùng Cung of the 1956 Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm movement – a political controversy over literary censorship, in his short autobiography published in 2005 by the Vietnam Literature Project)
Early on Tuesday, October 2, 2012, Nguyễn Chí Thiện, Vietnamese dissident-poet, passed away quietly at 73 in a Santa Ana hospital after refusing life support.
Of all of Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience, he had one of the longest overall sentences, spending a total of 27 years in various prison camps in North Vietnam.
Born in Hanoi in 1939 to a family of 6, his elder brother, Nguyen Cong Gian, enlisted in Vietnam’s National Army and was the only family member to move South, later rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the ARVN. After 1975, Cong Gian would also be imprisoned, spending 13 years in Hanoi’s reeducation camps. In 1954, Thien initially welcomed uncle Ho’s Viet Minh soldiers as liberators, but he and his family later regretted their earlier and short-lived exuberance.
In 1960, while substituting for a friend, he explained to a classroom that the Soviets did not end WWII by defeating the Japanese army, as stated in their textbook; but rather the United States and the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This landed him in prison for three and a half years.
In prison he began composing his poems in his head, committing them to memory by reciting them to his jailmates. In 1966, he was incarcerated again, this time for more than 11 years because his ‘reactionary’ poems 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 might not survive a third prison term, he was determined to smuggle his poetry out of Vietnam. Thien boldly entered the British Embassy in Hanoi, requesting asylum. Though his request was denied, British diplomats agreed to deliver his collection of 400 poems out of Vietnam. Thiện walked out of the embassy and spent the next 12 years in prison, mostly at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
His poetry first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1980’s under the title “A cry from the Abyss”, before being published as “Flowers from Hell”. The collection was translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Czech and Korean. Thanks to his international following, Thien won the Rotterdam’s International Poetry Prize in 1985. In 1988, he also won the “Freedom to Write” award from Pen International.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was finally released in 1991 and resettled in the U.S. in 1995, the same year he was honored by the Human Rights Watch.
Like many Vietnamese, I took up his cause as a student at Cal in the early 1980’s. We organized poetry recitals on university campuses throughout the Bay area to raise awareness about the prisoner-poet and Vietnam’s repressive state of morose socialism. This was the beginning of our friendship.
I am deeply sorrowed, not only by his passing, but also by the loneliness and despair that he and many exiled Vietnamese dissidents must have felt. They were denied the possibility of visiting Vietnam and stood watching Vietnam make its great leap backward as the Party continues to persecute and silence the voice of conscience, delivering heavy jail sentences to today’s dissident bloggers (a total of 26 years for bloggers Điếu Cày, Tạ Phong Tần, and Anh Ba Sàigòn). Did he resign, letting go of his world where hope is dying and tomorrow is slow in coming? This past June he discussed the French poem Élegie Septième with me, ignoring its prophetic message expressed by his dying wish:
– Dis-moi, dis-moi, guérirai-je
de ce qui est dans mon cœur?
– Ami, ami, la neige
ne guérit pas de sa blancheur
– Ami qui, dans les larmes, souris
comme un arc-en-ciel dans la pluie,
dis-moi, dis-moi, ô Mamore,
s’il me faudra mourir encore ?
– Es-tu fou mon petit ami?
Tu le sais… Nous irons en Paradis…
– O Mamore, dans le ciel bleu,
Dis? Que diras-tu au Bon-Dieu?
– Je lui dirai que, sur la terre,
il y a de grandes misères.
– O Mamore tant aimée… Dis?…
Comment sera le Paradis?
– Il y aura des harpes
d’azur et des écharpes.
– Qu’y aura-t-il encore, Mamore,
au Paradis? Encore… Encore…
– O ami, je suis ta Mamore.
Au Paradis il y a notre amour
Dis-moi, dis-moi, guérirai-je
De ce qui est dans mon coeur?
Ami, ami, la neige
Ne guérit pas de sa blancheur.
Làm sao chu*a duoc bênh trong tim?
Ban lòng oi, ban lòng oi,
Tuyet trang có khi nào tâ?y duoc màu tinh khôi cu?a nó?
Tell me, tell me, will I ever be cured
Of this thing in my heart
Friend, dear friend, the snow
Can never be cured of its purity
Friend, who amidst the tears, smiles
like a rainbow in the rain,
Tell me, do tell me, my Love,
Must I die once again?
Are you crazy dear friend?
You do know… We are going to Heaven…
O Love, in the blue sky,
Do tell? What will you say to the Good-Lord?
I will say, that on earth
Great misery abounds.
O sweetest Love… do tell?…
What will Heaven be like?
There will be azure harps
What else my Love,
will there be in Heaven? More… More…
My friend, I am your Love.
In Heaven, there will be our love.
Tell me, tell me, will I ever be cured
Of this thing in my heart?
Friend, dear friend, snow
Can never be cured of its purity.
Khi Mỹ chạy
Khi Mỹ chạy bỏ miền Nam cho Cộng sản
Sức mạnh toàn cầu nhục nhã kêu than
Giữa tù lao, bệnh hoạn, cơ hàn
Thơ vẫn bắn, và thừa dư sức đạn!
Vì thơ biết một ngày mai xa xôi nhưng sáng lạn
Không giành cho thế lực yêu gian
Tuyệt vọng dẫu lan tràn
Hy vọng dẫu tiêu tan
Dân nước dẫu đêm dài ai oán
Thơ vẫn đó, vẫn gông cùm trên ván
Âm thầm, thâm tím, kiên gan
Biến trái tim thành “chiếu yêu kính” giúp nhân gian
Nhận rõ nguyên hình Cộng sản
Tất cả suy tàn, sức thơ vô hạn
Thắng không gian mà thắng cả thời gian
Sắt thép quân thù năm tháng rỉ han!
(Nguyen Chi Thien, 1975)
When America ran
When America abandoned the South to the Communists
Humiliated global power, cried out
In the midst of prison labor, disease, hardship
Poetry still shoots, with plenty of power and bullets!
Because it knows tomorrow is far yet bright
That it is not reserved for their evil forces
Although despair may spread
And Hope dissipates
Nations and people ruminate in the dark plaintive night
Poetry is still here, still shackled to wooden planks
Silent, bruised, persistent
Tricking a heart that “radiates love and respect” into helping a
By clearly seeing the true forms of Communism
All will disintegrate, but the infinite power of poetry
Will conquer both time and space
And break down the rusty steel and metal of the enemy!
Thơ của tôi
Thơ của tôi không phải là thơ
Mà là tiếng cuộc đời nức nở!
Tiếng của nhà giam ngòm đen khép mở
Tiếng khò khè hai lá phổi hoang sơ!
Tiếng đất vùi (mộ) đổ xuống lấp niềm mơ!
Tiếng khai quật cuốc đào lên nỗi nhớ!
Tiếng răng lạnh đập vào nhau khổ sở!
Tiếng dạ dày đói lả bóp bâng quơ!
Tiếng tim buồn thoi thóp đập bơ vơ!
Tiếng bất lực trước muôn ngàn sụp đổ!
Toàn tiếng của cuộc đời sống dở,
Và chết thời cũng dở, phải đâu thơ
My verses are in fact no verses
They are simply Life’s sobbings
Dark prison cells opening and shutting
The dry cough of two hollow lungs
The sound of dirt burying dreams
The sound of hoes exhumating memories
The chattering of teeth in cold and misery
The pointless contractions of an empty stomach
The hopeless beat of a dying heart
The voice of impotence within a collapsing earth
All the sounds of a life not worth living
Even death is so bad, it can’t be poetry
Thơ của tôi
Thơ của tôi không có gì là đẹp
Như cướp vồ, cùm kẹp, máu ho laọ
Thơ của tôi không có gì cao
Như chết chóc mồ hôi báng sung
Thơ của tôi là những gì kinh khủng
Như Đảng, Đoàn, như lãnh tụ,như trung ương
Thơ của tôi kém phần tưởng tượng
Nó thật như tù, như đói, như đau thương
Thơ của tôi chỉ để đám dân thường
Nhìn thấu suốt tim đen phường quỷ đỏ.”
There is nothing beautiful about my poetry
Like highway robbery, shackles clamping, and tubercular blood
There is nothing noble about my poetry
Like death, sweat, and rifle butts
My poetry is made up of terrible things
Like the Party, the Youth Union, the leaders, the Central Committee
My Poetry lacks imagination
It is as real as prison, as hunger and suffering
My poetry is for simple folks
To see through the black heart of the Red devils.”
Có phải em là
Có phải em là em bé?
Bố tập trung xa cách đã mười năm?
Bố dượng em là bác da ngăm ngăm,
Là đồng chí bí thư nơi mẹ em công tác?
– Anh là bạn tù của bố em, từ tỉnh khác
– Về tìm em để nhắn hộ tin…
– Bố em giờ đau ốm cần xin
– Ít ký ninh, ít đường đen bồi dưỡng!
Bố dặn mẹ hãy an lòng, đừng ngượng
Bố hiểu cảnh tình rất thương mẹ và em
Hãy nín đi em đừng khóc!
Bố sắp về rồi, bố sẽ cho em đi học,
Mua cho em đôi dép em đi…
Em sẽ được là thiếu nhi quàng khăn đỏ
Là cháu ngoan bác Hồ em có thích không?
Are you not the child?
Are you not the child?
Whose father regrouped 10 years ago?
Your stepfather is the man with the dark olive skin,
He is the comrade secretary where your mother works?
I’m your father’s prison friend, from another province
I have been looking for you to give you a message…
Your Father is sick and needs
A bit of quinine, a little black sugar to eat!
Your Father wants to reassure your mother, she mustn’t be embarrassed
He understands the situation, he loves her and you both
Please stop crying!
Your father will come back and send you to school,
He will buy you sandals to walk in…
You will be the Red-Scarfed child
Uncle Ho’s well-mannered child, would you like that?
– Yes, I would!
Một tay em trổ
Một tay em trổ: Đời xua đuổi!
Một tay em trổ: Hận vô bờ!
Thế giới ơi! người có thể ngờ?
Đó là một tù nhân tám tuổi!
Trên bước đường tù, tôi rong ruổi
Tôi gặp hàng ngàn em bé như em!
A tattoed arm
A tattoed arm: Life Gone!
A tattoed arm: Infinite Hatred!
Oh world! Who would have imagined?
That’s an eight-year-old prisoner!
Throughout my prison journey
I have met thousands of children like him!
If Nguyen Chi Thien’s story is both extraordinary but also typical, how many among us has been touched by Vietnamese poets, writers, artists who have labored in obscurity?