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Manoa 18.1 (2006) 85-92

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An Autobiography

Nguyen Chi Thien was born in Ha Noi in 1939 to a lower middle-class family. When the war with France began in 1946, his family fled to their native village in the countryside. They returned to Ha Noi in 1949. Thien's political views came under suspicion by the authorities in 1956, and in 1960 he was arrested and imprisoned for three and a half years in labor camps. There he began to compose and memorize poems. In 1966, he was imprisoned again, charged with composing politically irreverent poems that circulated in Ha Noi and Hai Phong.

In 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon, Thien and other political prisoners were released to make room for officers of the Republic of Viet Nam. Once free, he seized the opportunity to write down his poems. In 1979, Thien was arrested once more, and imprisoned for twelve years. Following an international protest led by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, he was finally released in 1991. In 1995, by a special agreement with the Vietnamese and American governments, he was allowed to immigrate to the United States.

His books include Prison Songs (1982), Flowers from Hell (1984), and Hanoi Hilton Stories (2001). In 1985, he won the International Poetry Award for Flowers from Hell. In 1998, he received an International Pen Fellowship and for three years traveled in Europe and Australia. His poems have been translated into English, French, Japanese, German, Chinese, Czech, and Spanish.

My natal village is My-Tho, in the district of Binh-Luc, Ha-Nam Province, North Viet Nam.

When my parents died, I was in a concentration camp called Phong-Quang in Lao-Cai Province. After their death, my sister Hao visited me once. My sister visited for the purpose of telling me of the death of my mother—the only family visit that I received while imprisoned for fifteen years. This was not due to callous disregard on the part of my family; it was due to deliberate and constant changes of prisons and camps by the regime. Because I was not sentenced at trials, my family did not know [End Page 85]

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where I was going to be sent. They had to learn of my whereabouts from released prisoners, but by then I was most likely somewhere else. Political prisoners were shuffled regularly by jailers so they would not form associations for rebellion or escape.

After the Geneva agreement of 20 July 1954, nearly one million people left the North for the South, fleeing communism. My parents decided to stay in Ha Noi, believing that the Vietnamese Communists were patriots; they had led the people in the fight for national independence from the French. Moreover, the communist doctrine supported the poor.

That naiveté would have disastrous consequences. Nguyen-Cong Gian, my brother who had been mobilized in the quan doi quoc gia (National Army) in 1954, was the only one who went to the South, by traveling with the army. He later became a lieutenant colonel. After the fall of Saigon, he was imprisoned in reeducation camps in South Viet Nam for thirteen years.

I was arrested in 1960 by the Communist regime, accused of Anti-Propaganda, and condemned to two years in prison. In actuality, I had to live three years and six months in labor camps in Phu-Tho Province and Yen-Bai Province. Although labor was hard in these camps, I was still young. We prisoners could talk to each other on our way to and from work, which was primarily agricultural, growing vegetables. About ten of us enjoyed gathering in the yard at dusk to secretly read poetry and discuss literature. This was necessarily secret because the guards would break up groups, especially those that met regularly.

During those years in detention, I created about a hundred poems on the subjects of the prison scene and anticommunism. When I was released in 1964, I continued to write poetry and recite it to my closest friends, who then recited it to people in Hai...