So Vast the Prison: A Novel
Translated by Betsy Wing
So Vast the Prison, Djebar's 3rd work of fiction to be published in the United States (it was first published by Albin Michel in France), is the double-threaded story of a modern, educated Algerian woman existing in a man's society, and, not surprisingly, living a life of contradictions. Djebar, too, tackles cross-cultural issues just by writing in French of an Arab society (the actual act of writing contrasting with the strong oral traditions of the indigenous culture), as a woman who has seen revolution in a now post-colonial country, and as an Algerian living in exile.
In this new novel, Djebar brilliantly plays these contradictions against the bloody history of Carthage, a great civilization the Berbers were once compared to, and makes it both a tribute to the loss of Berber culture and a meeting-point of culture and language. As the story of one woman's experience in Algeria, it is a private tale, but one embedded in a vast history.
A radically singular voice in the world of literature, Assia Djebar's work ultimately reaches beyond the particulars of Algeria to embrace, in stark yet sensuous language, the universal themes of violence, intimacy, ostracism, victimization, and exile.
"Writing becomes weapon and refuge for the oppressed in this fiercely intelligent, intricate novel set in a tragic, bewitching Algeria. Expressing the bitterness of being caught between traditional Islamic and modern European cultures, married 36-year-old Isma begins her story the summer she has an affair with a student. A highly educated musicologist, Isma is also governed by Islamic tradition. When her husband discovers her dalliance, he beats her, intending to blind her. The affair marks Isma's awakening and the beginning of her quest for true independence, though she stays with her husband for a little while longer. When she finally leaves him, she embarks on a semi-documentary film project, to be called Arable Woman. Intertwining her experiences in the mountains filming peasant women with memories of her childhood and stories about her female ancestors and relatives, Isma weaves a complicated tapestry of images and sentiments. the tales she unearths are richly detailed and gracefully told, and the book becomes a moving common history of cultural exile and captivity. Djebar, winner of the 1996 Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature, has a talent for narrating the stories of those who are 'freed and voiceless' without heavy-handed moralizing or judgment." —Publishers Weekly
About Assia Djebar
ASSIA DJEBAR was born in Algeria of Berber heritage, and was educated in France and in her homeland. In 1996 she won the prestigious Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature (previous winners include Max Frisch, Francis Ponge, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and the Yourcenar Prize in 1997. She is a novelist, scholar, poet, and filmmaker who won the Venice Biennale Critics Prize (1979). She writes in French and her books have been translated into many languages. She lives in Paris and in Baton Rouge, where she is currently Director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University.