The poet was a familiar figure, striding through Little Saigon, sipping tea, sharing wisdom, his head covered with his trademark fedora. He liked to read through the night, not too tired to dissect a bit of homeland politics.
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, he died just as quietly in a Santa Ana hospital after suffering chest pain. Nguyen Chi Thien, 73, the acclaimed author of “Flowers From Hell,” was revered for his modesty and 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 Doan Viet Hoat, a friend and fellow democracy activist.
“I think his whole life has been a lonely life, and it touched his thinking,” he said. “It made him the person he is. And he is someone who understands humanity, society and the regime” in Hanoi.
In 1960, while working as a substitute teacher at a high school in his homeland, he opened a textbook stating that the Soviet Union triumphed over 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 defeated Japan when it dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Nguyen, born in Hanoi on Feb. 27, 1939, paid for his remark with three years and six months in labor camps, charged with spreading propaganda, according to the online Viet Nam Literature Project.
In jail, Nguyen began composing poems in his head, memorizing them. Police arrested him again in 1966, condemning his politically irreverent verses, distributed in Hanoi and Haiphong, and sending him back to prison, this time for more than 11 years. He was released in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon.
In 1979, he walked into the British Embassy in Hanoi with a manuscript of 400 poems, according to the Viet Nam Literature Project. British diplomats promised to ferry his poetry out of the country.
Jailed again, he spent the next 12 years at Hoa Lo prison -- infamous as the Hanoi Hilton.
While he was locked up, his collected writings were published as “Flowers From Hell,” initially in Vietnamese, then translated into English, which helped him win the International Poetry Award in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1985. An anthology of his poems later became available in French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
“He represents a devotion to imagination and to intellect. He was very concerned with what I consider to be a great theme of Vietnamese literature -- piercing beyond illusion,” said Dan Duffy, founder of the Viet Nam Literature Project.
“He not only survived all those years” in captivity, Duffy added, “he glowed with special insight.”
By 1991, as socialism crumbled in Europe, Nguyen emerged from prison with a worldwide following. Human Rights Watch honored him in 1995 -- the same year he resettled in the United States.
“He couldn’t sit still too long, for he had been forced to be still. His life became his work. He’s still here. He’s immortal,” said Jean Libby, who launched vietamreview.net and who edited Nguyen’s prison prose, “Hoa Lo/Hanoi Hilton Stories.”
Nguyen was hospitalized at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana and underwent testing for lung cancer when he died. He had tuberculosis as a youth.
“He accepted the coming death. His mind and his spirit were always open,” said author and human rights activist Tran Phong Vu, who remained at his friend’s hospital bedside. The men had taped a TV cable show together on Vietnamese current events, sharing a final meal of My Tho noodles, just days before Nguyen’s passing.
Nguyen never married and had no children.
But his work, stanzas that became as familiar as songs, keeping his soul alive in the darkness of confinement, continue to move the Vietnamese immigrant generation -- and their sons and daughters. As translated by the journalist Nguyen Ngoc Bich, he wrote:
There is nothing beautiful about my poetry
It’s like highway robbery, oppression, TB blood cough
There is nothing noble about my poetry
It’s like death, perspiration, and rifle butts
My poetry is made up of horrible images
Like the Party, the Youth Union, our leaders, the Central Committee
My poetry is somewhat weak in imagination
Being true like jail, hunger, suffering
My poetry is simply for common folks
To read and see through the red demons’ black hearts.