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Third World Literature

As a term of standard usage, though still minus "literature," Third World dates from the 1950s. (The Oxford English Dictionary's first listing for it—still in its French form of Tiers Monde—is dated 1956.) Supposedly coined by the French sociologist Alfred Sauvy (1898–1990) in 1952, it initially referred to the independent and soon-to-be-independent nations of Africa and Asia that claimed to maintain a militarily nonaligned stance vis-à-vis both "First" and "Second" worlds—for instance, respectively, the United States, and its allies in NATO and SEATO, and the Soviet Union together with the nations of the Warsaw Pact, with the People's Republic of China a kind of wild card. But as this exact historical point of origin fades more and more into an unremembered past, Third World nevertheless continues to evoke the defining moments of a still iridescent lineage of the present: the era of anticolonial and national liberation mass movements and wars, from India to Algeria to Vietnam, that produced the contemporary grid of national boundaries in most of Africa and in large parts of Asia. Hence, the unmistakably radical overtone that is still audible in the term itself. And hence, given the eventual disappointment of that radical aspiration to become a "third"—that is, still another new world—there often appears an impulse to shrug it off in favor of more neutral-sounding terms such as "postcolonial."

Following Aijaz Ahmad, this "pre-history of the present" can be more precisely identified as the "Bandung Era," stretching from the meeting of nonaligned heads of Asian and African states in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955—with statesmen such as Jawaharlal Nehru (1918–1970), Gamel Abdel Nasser (1889–1964), and Chou En-lai (1898–1976) presiding—to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its embrace of an openly antisecularist path to national emancipation. Though events in the world since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the launching of a second war in the Persian Gulf in 2003 may at times seem to have set the historical clock back to a "Third World" moment—prospective or real Vietnam-style defeat for the United States in Iraq—the sense of repetition is finally possible only from the perspective of a newly humbled U.S. imperial hubris. Outside the metropolitan world, the struggles to resist or even just simply withstand what is now—relative to, say, 1968—the enormously worsened global crisis of capital seem to evoke only the terrible suffering and martyrdom of the successful war of national liberation eventually won, on the ground, by Vietnam in 1975. Long past is the historical conjuncture that saw in Vietnam the emblem, along with Cuba, of what Robert J. C. Young rechristens, in 2001, as "tricontinentalism": the uniting, within a "third" world forcibly triangulated by Cold War dualisms, of Asia and Africa, joined now by a Latin America obliged by modern imperialism to accept that, like the former regions, but unlike the settler colony to its north, it was also far "south" of the West.

For these reasons, "Third World literature" is not the name for a well-defined literary corpus—the way, say, "South African" literature, or even "Southern African" or "Latin American" can or could be. This is not just because, as Ahmad has noted, "it is in the metropolitan country … that a literary text is first designated a Third World text" (p. 44). It is also because Third World literature names a historical aspiration to objectivity, rather than an object per se. Cahiers du re-tour au pays natal could not belong to a Third World literature had its author, Aimé Césaire (b. 1913), not been Martinican, and probably had he not been a black Martinican. But just being Martinican does not itself make this work Third World in any meaningful sense either. It sounds more plausible to call Martín Fierro, the best known of the Argentina's nineteenth-century gaucho sagas, Third World than it does to call Argentine Jorge Luis Borges's (1899–1986) short story collection Ficciones by that name, even though only the latter (first published in 1944) falls within the appropriate, historically demarcated zone.

One might define Third World literature as composing the literatures of Asia, Africa, and Latin America—perhaps together with their respective metropolitan diasporas. But this could only work if the category was effectively restricted to works written after the end of World War II. And that still leaves the question of whether Third World literature continues to be written, or whether in fact it extends only as far as the various ideological slippage points for embattled national-liberationist energies: as early as the 1970s in West and South Asia and as late as the 1980s and 1990s in South Africa and Central America. Perhaps even so severely qualified a categorization remains technically defensible, since it does, after all, provide a means, however contentious, to refer collectively to the literature of a transnational but sub-global entity. As recently as the shutting down of the World Trade Organization meetings in Cancún in 2003 by an Indian-Chinese-Brazilianled "Third World" alliance, this entity, in its political form, made its real presence known.

But, of course, what the notion of a third conveys—especially after the disappearance of a second—is essentially the fact that it is not first. Third World literature is that literature that is most emphatically not of the First—that is, not of the European, the Europeanized American, and perhaps simply not of the white man's world. In this sense it is Third World literature that inherited, if anything can be said to have done so, the revolutionary, utopian aspiration once claimed by a class, rather than a racial or ethnic "other": Third World literature appears, at times, to replace but also to act as a kind of relay for the lost promise of a "proletarian" literature. It is the nonor antibourgeois literature of a world for which literature itself has seemed to become irredeemably bourgeois. So, for example, not only in the militancy of a Ngugi wa Thiong'o or the epic gravity of a Pramoedya Anta Toer but even in the largely parodic structure of Latin American "magical realism," the direct mediation of class by "oppressed nation," theorized by Fanon, is arguably at work.

It is, ironically, just this absence of any positive, precisely determined empirical reference, this aspiration to "other" worldliness, however mystified, that has made of Third World literature what is still a key, if somewhat devalued, term in literary and cultural theory. Although it cannot refer to just any literary work, when it does refer to actually existing literature there is always embedded in the term itself a reference to the falsely claimed universality of the "Western canon." Thus whatever it is that, say, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's film Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of underdevelopment, 1968), means on a literary and narrative plane, its meaning, as "Third World literature," is understood to be one that could not have been produced "in" the "First World."

In this register, one critical work above all has stamped our way of speaking and thinking of Third World literature: Fredric Jameson's 1986 essay "Third World Literature in the Era of Multi-national Capitalism." "As western readers, whose tastes (and much else) have been formed by our own modernisms," wrote Jameson, "a popular or socially realistic third-world novel tends to come before us, not immediately, but as though already-read. We sense, between ourselves and this alien text, the presence of another reader, of the Other reader, for whom a narrative, which strikes us as conventional or naïve, has a freshness of information and a social interest we cannot share" (p. 66). Jameson's reference to a habitual impression of the "conventional or naïve" in Third World literature has now itself come to seem naïve, and the sense of the "already-read" may now be replaced by a sense of an (always already) "unread." But the relation that Jameson captures here of reader to "Other reader" in and through Third World literature could not be more actual.

The tendency, since about 1990, to substitute the term postcolonial for Third World, reflects, of course, the rise of postcolonial theory in the metropolitan academy, and, if nothing else, the sense of embarrassment, within that academy, at making even the most remotely uncritical allusion to supposedly obsolete doctrines of national liberation. But, mutatis mutandis, the strange logical slippages bequeathed by history to Third World literature resurface in the newer jargon. Meanwhile, to be sure, the literature itself—Third World, postcolonial, or however it is to be framed—occupies a central position in the metropolitan canons that once excluded it even as the presence of its Other reader, in ethical as much as in literary form, is felt just as strongly, if not more urgently than ever before.


Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London: Verso, 1992.

Jameson, Fredric. "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism." Social Text 15 (1986): 65–88.

Young, Robert J. C. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction. Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001.

Neil Larsen

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