Human rights and the literary self-portrait: Vann Nath's A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21

This essay examines Vann Nath's memoir A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S-21 as a historical genre enjoined to Cambodia's contemporary human rights movement. Exemplifying Tzevetan Todorov's assertions about new genre formation, Nath's text functions as what I term a human rights literary self-portrait. While the literary self-portrait has been associated with a Western tradition of autobiography that chronicles the life and development of the autonomous artist (Beaujour 1991. Poetics of the Literary Self-Portrait. New York: New York University Press; Soussloff 1997. The Absolute Artist: The Historiography of a Concept. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), Cambodian life writing has been focused on bearing witness to war crimes and to engaging the attention of the international community (Yamada 2005. Form and Transformation in Asian American Literature, edited by Zhou Xiaojing and Samina Najmi, 144–167. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press). Simultaneously an introspective reflection on the life of an artist and a politicized act of inscribing collective history, Nath's memoir illustrates the way in which life narratives and human rights campaigns can operate, in the words of Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, as ‘multidimensional domains that merge and intersect at critical points, unfolding and unfolding one another in an ethical relationship that is simultaneously productive of claims for social justice and problematic for the furtherance of this goal’ (Schaffer and Smith. 2004. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2).