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Remembering Vietnamese dissident poet Nguyen Chi Thien

Cover of Nguyen Chi Thien's collection,
Cover of Nguyen Chi Thien's collection, "Flowers from Hell," of poetry he composed and memorized while in prison.

The Vietnamese dissident poet Nguyen Chi Thien died earlier this week in Santa Ana, Calif., at the age of 73.

Nguyen's story is a remarkable one: Imprisoned for years by Vietnamese authorities, he secretly composed poems without pen or paper and memorized them. He eventually turned these into a 400-poem manuscript that was published after he smuggled it into the British embassy in Hanoi in 1979.

He was soon imprisoned again, and while he languished there, his poetry collection "Flowers from Hell" was translated and published in multiple languages.

Nguyen finally made it to the United States in 1995 and settled in Orange County's Little Saigon, where he continued to write.

The Viet Nam Literature Project published this excerpt from "Flowers from Hell":

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

Read an autobiographical excerpt from Nguyen here.