One remarkable man’s struggle to be heard

If you’re thinking this seems a little more serious than my usual posts, then you’d be right — unsurprising when you’ve just sat down to eat lunch and end up reading the Obituary section of The Economist, I guess.

Why do I read them? Because they only go for a page — around two columns with an accompanying photo — and when I’m short on time I don’t want to dive into something that I’ll have to leave unfinished. And at risk of sounding morbid, I find these obituaries fascinating and tragic because often it’s the first time I’ve heard about these people and the way they’ve touched our world.

Case in point, the October 13th weekly edition of The Economist obituary section features Nguyen Chi Thien, a Vietnamese poet who died on October 2nd aged 73.

I’m moved to blog about this man because it’s my small way of contributing to his memory, and because this post might reach my small community of aspiring writers and authors. I think they’ll find this excerpt from The Economist’s obituary page particularly poignant:

“The poems were under his shirt, 400 of them. The date was July 16th 1979, just two days–he noted it–after the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Freedom day. He ran through the gate of the British embassy in Hanoi, past the guard, demanding to see the ambassador. The guard couldn’t stop him. In the reception area, a few Vietnamese were sitting at a table. He fought them off, and crashed the table over. In a cloakroom nearby, an English girl was doing her hair; she dropped her comb in terror. The noise brought three Englishmen out, and he thrust his sheaf of poems at one of them. Then, calm again, he let himself be arrested.

Thus Nguyen Chi Thien sent his poems out of Communist Vietnam. They were published as “Flowers of Hell”, translated into half a dozen languages, and won the International Poetry Award in 1985. He heard of this, vaguely, in his various jails. In Hoa Lo, the “Hanoi Hilton”, one of his captors furiously waved a book in his face. To his delight, he saw it was his own.”

(Excerpt from The Economist, October 13th 2012 edition, Obituary section.)

I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of Nguyen Chi Thien before reading this obituary today. In other obituaries I’ve since read, he’s described as a man who will be remembered because of “his strength, his perseverance, and his poetry”.  And when I Googled “Flowers of Hell” I found The Viet Nam Literature Project (VNLP), and a page dedicated to Nguyen Chi Thien’s poems, with one poem from each year represented in “Flowers of Hell”. I hope you’ll make time to read a few.

Now, after reading his poetry and learning how he was deprived of pen and paper and forced to keep track of his poems in his head, I’d love to be able to spout some evocative and memorable comment here about how poorer the world is for the loss of this remarkable man… but I can’t find the words. So perhaps it’s best I leave you with his words:

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.

(From Flowers of Hell by Nguyen Chi Thien, 1975, translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich)

R.I.P. Nguyen Chi Thien.

When all seems hopeless, we should never give up hope that someday our voices will be heard.





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