Recently, my friend sent me a surprise gift in honor of the new year. The gift was Ocean Vuong’s new book of poetry, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds.” I’d spent maybe 45 minutes back in December raving to this friend about how much I loved Ocean Vuong, both as a writer and as a person, so she must have taken the hint.
In the poem “Notebook Fragments,” there’s a line that goes like this: “When the prison guards burned his manuscripts, Nguyễn Chí Thiện couldn’t stop / laughing — the 283 poems already inside him.” Vuong explains this in the back of the book, clarifying that Nguyễn Chí Thiện was a Vietnamese dissident poet who spent 27 years in prison as a result of his writing.
I had never heard of Thiện before, but this instantly seized my interest. Twenty-seven years just for writing. I looked him up, and sure enough, it was true — and what’s more, the more I read about Thiện’s life, the less I was able to believe it.
The first time Thiện was imprisoned, it was for teaching a high school history class in which he contradicted the government’s account of how Japan was defeated in World War II. He spent three and a half years in reeducation camps, where he began composing and memorizing poems with no pen or paper. He was released briefly in 1966, then sent back to jail again for his “politically irreverent” poetry. He spent another 11 years and five months in labor camps, until 1977, when he was released to make room for officers of the Republic of Vietnam.
He used this opportunity to write down every single poem he’d composed in prison, which until now had existed only in his own memory and in the memories of some of his fellow prisoners. Many of them were poets as well, and had taken up a similar practice of memorizing their poems, sometimes counting the beats on their fingers to keep track. They would recite their poems to one another and to themselves, just to make sure not to lose them.
In 1979, Thiện ran into the British embassy in Hanoi carrying a manuscript of 400 poems and a cover letter written in French. (He had originally intended to take it to the French embassy, but was unable to do this due to the heavy security). British diplomats couldn’t give him asylum, but they promised to get his work out of the country, and he was arrested and imprisoned again without trial as soon as he left the building.
He spent the next 12 years at various prisons around northern Vietnam, including nearly eight years in solitary confinement. While he was in prison, his manuscript was published under the title “Flowers of Hell,” and he was awarded the International Poetry Award in 1985. He learned of his success only when a prison guard waved a book in his face, attempting to taunt him, and the book turned out to be his own.
There are some schools of thought out there that say that you shouldn’t need any context in order to appreciate what makes literature good. You shouldn’t need to know anything about the writer, or the historical situation in which they were writing. But I don’t understand how this argument makes sense when you think about someone like Thiện, or really about anyone. Often, you’re missing out on half the literature — half the beauty, half the poetry — if you miss out on the incredible story that it took for that writing to make its way to you. Thiện’s poetry by itself is striking, but I’m also stricken by the strength, determination and creativity that tied him to that poetry within his own life.
I think that, historically, I have a bit of a tendency to aestheticize literature. Take Ocean Vuong, for instance; I love his poetry, but I also love his Instagram page and the cover of his book and the fact that it seems like he’s always going to Iceland. And that might be a bad thing — that I tend to fixate on aspects of writing that seem to have to do with everything but the writing itself.
But I don’t think that’s true. I think that writing, like any art form, is just a way of teaching ourselves to better understand and appreciate the millions of stories, thoughts and emotions that make up the world. And the facets that make up somebody’s life, the decisions that they make, have just as much to teach you as the words that they choose to write down. If I’m in awe of Nguyễn Chí Thiện’s life, it’s because he knew who he was and what he wanted to be in the world, both on the page and in practice. There was no divide; it was all inside him. That’s the kind of writer I want to be, and that’s the kind of person I want to be. Besides, a real role model isn’t simply somebody you can look at and say that they wrote something well, or that they mastered a certain poetic form. It’s somebody who affects the way that you think about other people and the way that you want to live your life. For me, Nguyễn Chí Thiện has done that; the story of his life is the story of a hero of literature, of Vietnam and of humanity.
Selected poems from “Flowers of Hell” can be found here.