In any language
Mary Mackey is a poet, novelist, screenwriter and winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for excellence in literature for her poetry collection Sugar Zone. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature, has spent time journeying through Brazil as well as the jungles of Costa Rica, and she is related to Mark Twain. All of her books are currently available in electronic format, including Immersion, which has been out of print for nearly 40 years. Mackey says that her life’s work can be purchased for the low cost of approximately $29. Mackey, who will read from her work on Thursday, February 28, at 8 p.m. at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar (1414 16th Street), talked to SN&R about Brazil, her recent PEN Oakland award and why she can’t afford an original copy of her first novel.
What does winning the PEN Oakland award mean to you?
PEN is one of, if not the most, important organizations of writers in the world. PEN awards are one of the most prestigious awards that acknowledge the literary quality of a work combined with the recognition and respect of fellow writers. They are like Academy Awards for writers. I’m particularly honored because PEN Oakland is intentionally multicultural. It specifically acknowledges works that take as their subject a broad perspective that transcends class, race and international boundaries.
In Sugar Zone, you blend English and Portuguese. Did you worry that people might find the collection too difficult?
I mixed English and Portuguese in Sugar Zone in a way designed to make the poems completely accessible to English-only speakers. If you speak any Latin-based language such as French, Spanish or Portuguese, you’ll get something extra from the poem.
How did this collection come about?
It draws on decades of living and studying in Latin America.
When I was 20. I lived in the jungle off and on for six years. I’ve gone back almost every year. One of my great subjects is the rain forests. I lived in the rain forests of Costa Rica before they were mostly cut down. I’ve been a personal witness to the change. The rain forests of Costa Rica were the subject of my first novel, Immersion. When I was at Harvard [University], I worked in the Harvard ethnobotanical museum where I came under the influence of Richard Evans Schultes, one of the world’s greatest ethnobotanists. He encouraged in me a lifelong interest in tropical botany and ecology—themes which often occur in my novels and poetry.
What do you love about Brazil?
I love the music. I love the tropical rain forest. I think Portuguese is one of the world’s most beautiful languages. It’s soft. It’s musical. It’s got a wonderfully huge vocabulary. It has a leisurely pace often that I find very peaceful.
You taught yourself Portuguese?
I did. I speak Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, French and English. I started studying Portuguese in my 40s. … I love talking to people in other countries in their language. When you learn a foreign language, you get a broader view of the world. Each language divides the human experience differently. You almost get a different personality.
Your books have been given new life in electronic form.
It’s a kind of resurrection because they’ll never go out of print. Many of my themes were 15 years ahead of their time.
Immersion deals with the destruction of the tropical rain forest and ecological issues, and it was written in 1968. Ecology was still such a new field. … In many ways, Immersion was prophetic. It’s the first eco-feminist novel in the world, as far as anyone’s been able to determine. It was the first feminist novel published by a second-wave feminist press—Shameless Hussy Press. It’s now so rare and so expensive, that I can’t afford to buy [an original] copy for myself.
Is that why you decided to have your titles made into e-books?
My aim is to make my work accessible to everybody. … Electronic books are filling a niche that paperbacks filled in the ’40s and ’50s when they were very inexpensive.
Why did you put Sugar Zone out as an e-book so quickly?
The advantage is that it easily reaches a huge international audience. They can immediately buy and read my poetry. The advantage of having it in paperback is that it’s a beautiful book. The cover is based on a photograph with the black waters of the Amazon [River] with the reflection of the trees and water lilies in it, so that you can’t [tell] what is reflected and what is reflective. It sets the mysterious, magical quality that many of the poems have.