Acclaimed Vietnamese dissident poet dies in Little Saigon
He lived simply, renting rooms in other people's homes, wearing the same suits for appearances, offering thanks for gifts of fruit and books. Early Tuesday morning, he died just as quietly in Santa Ana, as his older brother rushed from Virginia to see him one last time, arriving too late.
Nguyen Chi Thien, 73, the acclaimed author of "Flowers from Hell," was revered for his modesty and remarkable creativity, thriving through 27 years of imprisonment, much of it in isolation.
"For him to live that long, in an existence that dramatic, is precious," said friend and fellow democracy activist Doan Viet Hoat. "I think his whole life has been a lonely life, and it touched his thinking."
Nguyen was from Haiphong in north Vietnam and grew up with two siblings.
In 1960, while visiting a high school class in his homeland, he opened a history textbook, which stated that the Soviet Union had defeated the Imperial Army of Japan in Manchuria, bringing an end to World War II.
That's not true, he explained to students. The United States actually defeated Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nguyen paid for his remark with three years and six months in labor camps, according to the Vietnam Literature Project, where researchers documented his story.
In jail be began composing poems in his head, memorizing them. Police jailed him again in 1966, condemning his politically irreverent poems that were distributed in Hanoi and Haiphong. This time, Nguyen spent more than 11 years behind bars.
In 1979, he entered the British Embassy in Hanoi with his manuscript of 400 poems, according to the Vietnam Literature Project. British diplomats greeted him and promised to ferry his manuscript out of the country.
Jailed again, he spent the next 12 years at Hoa Lo prison--infamous as the Hanoi Hilton.
On the outside, his collected writings were published as "Flowers of Hell," initially in Vietnamese, then translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. The English version helped Nguyen to win the International Poetry Award in Rotterdam in 1985.
By 1991, as socialism crumbled, Nguyen emerged from prison with an international following. Human Rights Watch honored him in 1995--the same year he resettled in the United States.
He never married and had no children.
--Anh Do, reporting from Little Saigon
Photo: Nguyen Chi Thien. Credit: Courtesy of Triet Tran.