Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination


Translated by Betsy Wing

Winner of the 2000 Independent Publisher Book Award for Multicultural Fiction

“For a long time I believed that writing meant dying . . .” begins this extraordinary book, the double-threaded story of one woman’s existence set against the unforgiving history of her country.

So Vast the Prison is the most ambitious work to date by the woman many consider to have been North Africa’s most important literary voice. The tragedies of Algerian history are its subject—particularly the condition of women in Islam. Djebar’s fiction, like that of Nadine Gordimer and Edna O’Brien, wrestles with issues of oppression and the subtle ways that language and history enforce it.

It is the story of a modern, educated Algerian woman, raised during the years of Colonial oppression and the Algerian War, whose older brother was imprisoned in France. She watches her marriage disintegrate in a society intolerant of women, even as she marvels at the closeness of women among themselves at the ritual baths and in other gatherings. Woven into the woman’s personal life story is the ancient history of her land, including the loss of its early languages, the massive destruction suffered in wars of conquest, and the quirks of chance which enabled traces to remain.

Here is a radically singular voice; a private tale embedded in a vast tapestry.


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“Assia Djebar . . .has given weeping its words and longing its lyrics.”

“Marx . . . wanted to be a 'citizen of the world.' Listening to Assia Djebar's torn yet majestically flowing voice gives us some sense of what is involved in that admirable aspiration.”

“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.”

“From time to time, we hear about books that supposedly tear away the veil from the lives of Arab women. I don't know anyone who has done this with more intelligence and passion . . . than Assia Djebar. That murmur beneath her images soon begins to sound like a roar.”

“[A] polymorphously lyrical novel by . . . Algeria's foremost literary voice.”


A beloved author, translator, and filmmaker, Assia Djebar (1936–2015) was born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in the Algerian town of Cherchell. Her novels and poems boldly faced the challenges and struggles she knew as a feminist living under patriarchy, and as an intellectual living under colonialism and its aftermath. Djebar’s writing, marked by a regal unwillingness to compromise in the face of ethical, linguistic, and narrative complexities, attracted devoted followers around the world, and received numerous awards and recognitions, including the Venice International Critics’ Prize, the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Yourcenar Prize, the Frankfurt Peace Prize, and a knighthood in France’s Legion of Honor. She was the first Algerian woman to be admitted to France’s prestigious École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from the Maghreb to be admitted to the Académie Française.