“Just as good as the real thing”: Exploring Historiopoiesis in Contemporary American Literature

by Ilka Saal


This paper examines contemporary literary engagements with history, particularly with the traumatic history of slavery. It identifies a recent paradigm shift from a poetics of resistance and revision to a poetics of production. Since the mid 1990s, writers such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Jamaica Kincaid, along with visual and performance artists such as Kara Walker, Keith Obadike, and DJ Spooky have begun to challenge rigorously established figures, tropes, and discourses of white and black history alike and to merge liberally fact and fiction in the fashioning of fresh histories. To stress the radically productive stance of this new work and to distinguish it from more conventional mimetic historiographic praxis, I introduce the term historiopoiesis – the making (poiesis) of history with decidedly poetic means. A historiopoetic engagement with the past is the distinguishing signature of what I call third-generation writing on slavery. Shaped by the convergence of various political, cultural, and theoretical developments, it presents not only a fresh poetic but also new political approach to the issue of traumatic history and racial memory.