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In Memoriam

1935 - 2012
Nguyen Chi Thien

International PEN

PEN International | 09 October 2012

PEN International mourns the death of Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien who passed away on 2 October 2012. PEN members’ thoughts are with his family and friends.

Nguyen Chi Thien was one of the Writers in Prison Committee’s emblematic cases featured in the 50th anniversary of the Committee’s existence. Here is a brief background of his life.

Born in February 1935 in Hanoi, Vietnam, Nguyen Chi Thien asked in by friend to teach one of his classes as he was ill. The year was 1960. In the lesson Chi Thien told the students that America had defeated Japan in World War Two, not the Soviet Union which the official curriculum claimed.

Nguyen Chi Thien was soon arrested and sentenced to two years imprisonment on the charge spreading “anti-government propaganda”. During what turned out to be a three and a half year incarceration he composed “almost a hundred poems” (committing them to memory). He was briefly released in 1964, however, he was soon re-arrested in February 1966 on the charge of producing “politically irreverent poems”. For this offence, and without trial, he was to serve 11 years in prison camps before being temporarily released in July 1977 because there was no room in the crowded camp to cope with the increasing flow of new prisoners coming from South Vietnam. Denied employment, Nguyen Chi Thien composed a further four hundred poems.

After the end of the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, afraid of being unable to survive if re-arrested, Nguyen Chi Thien decided to send his ‘’incriminated’’ poems abroad. In July 1979, braving security police, he handed his handwritten manuscript to diplomats at the British embassy after extracting a promise that the poems would be published. Upon leaving the embassy he was arrested by Vietnamese security forces and imprisoned for a further twelve years.

Nguyen Chi Thien was freed in October 1991 after international interventions, including by PEN members and granted asylum in the U.S.A., where he was invited to address Congress. Between 1998 and 2001 he lived in France where he had been awarded a fellowship by the International Parliament of Writers. His Hoa Lo Prison Stories, a prose narrative of his imprisonment’s experiences, was translated and published in English as the Hoa Lo / Hanoi Hilton Stories by Yale Southeast Asia Studies in 2007. He returned to America and he settled in California where he continued writing. Nguyen Chi Thien’s collection of poems was published abroad in eight different languages and in 1985 he won the International Poetry Award in Rotterdam.

PEN International celebrates Nguyen Chi Thien’s life by sharing a sample of his poetry.

Inside The Prison Trap of Steel

I want to see no streams of tears,
And laughter I want even less to hear.
I want that each of us
clamp tight his jaws,
withdraw his hands from everything,
refuse to be a buffalo, a dog.
Soak up this truth: this jail will last
As long as it holds buffalos and dogs.
Unless were are mere clay
we shall stay men.

Flowers from Hell translated by Huynh Sanh Thong. Yale Southeast Asia Studies 1984. ISBN: 0-938692-21-6

Click here for more of his poetry.

For further information please contact Cathy McCann at International PEN Writers in Prison Committee, Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, Fax: +44 (0) 20 7405 0339, email:

Patricia Diaz | Research and Campaign Support, Writers in Prison Committee | PEN International t. +44 (0)20 7405 0338 | m. +44 (0)7824640527 | Twitter | Facebook |
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

Celebrating 90 years of promoting literature and defending freedom of expression

International PEN is trading as PEN International. International PEN is a company registered in England and Wales with registration number 05683997. International PEN is a registered charity in England and Wales with registration number 1117088. International PEN’s registered office is Brownlow House, 50-51 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6ER,UK.

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