Meredith W. Cornett (Panama 1991-93) is the author of Heart of Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla soon to be published by the University of Alabama Press, and editor of Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices published by Peace Corps Writers (2013).
Meredith, how did you find your way into the Peace Corps.
Well, I was born and raised in Atlanta, and I went to Oberlin College in Ohio and majored in biology. This is where I had my Peace Corps interview. After my tour with the Peace Corps, I attended the University of Minnesota for a MS and PhD in Forestry.
Were you involved with forestry as a PCV?
Yes, I was a community forester in Panama from 1991 to 1993. It was a beautiful location in Chagres National Park in the tiny village of Tranquilla on the shores of Lake Alajuela.
What got you interested in the Peace Corps in the first place?
Well, when I was 12 I did my first term paper on the Peace Corps: “The Idealism of the Peace Corps: Dead or Alive?” After turning in that paper, I kept coming back to the brochures collected as I was researching it. By the time I went away to college, I couldn’t imagine *not* joining Peace Corps, or life beyond Peace Corps for that matter.
From your Peace Corps tour, tell a story or remember some details (or incident) that has stayed with your all these years.
It would definitely have to be about the army ants raiding our palm-thatched hut in the middle of the night. Getting up-close-and-personal with army ants was an experience of a lifetime, and not one I’d care to repeat! I have a chapter on this experience in my Peace Corps memoir Heart of Palms (”Hormigas”), and an earlier version of it was published online in Left Hand Waving under the title, “Siege.”: https://sites.google.com/site/lefthandwaving/mer
When did you decide to write Heart of Palms: My Peace Corps Years in Tranquilla, and why?
Even as I was serving in Panama, I hoped to write a book some day. I took good notes and had my family save letters and cassette tapes with that in mind. Acting upon it was a whole different matter. It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later — after I’d finished graduate school and moved to the Northwoods of Minnesota — that I actually joined a writers group (Open Memoir through Lake Superior Writers) and started getting some great guidance and support as I stepped through the process of writing it. All in all, Heart of Palms took more than ten years to write, fitting it around a full time job, the birth of our daughter, and life generally. Twenty years later, a book was finally born!
Was it an easy birth?
It was an “interesting” birth. The reasons I wanted to tell this story broadened as I wrote the book. At first, it was more anthropological in nature. I wanted to capture a place and time and share it with other Americans in a way they might not ever experience on their own — really, Peace Corps’ “Third Goal.” Over the years, as I learned more about memoir as a literary genre, I realized there was also a tale to tell about my own personal journey and the way in which Peace Corps shaped and changed the course of my life. As I finished the book, yet another purpose emerged: finding solutions to the growing tension between people and nature — and contributing to a conservation movement that embraces both.
So many great organizations are working in Panama these days. In my mind, one of the best is Sustainable Harvest International (SHI). Florence Reed, who served with me in Panama, is the President and founder of SHI. I wanted to help build awareness about the incredible conservation and restoration work they are doing, and the benefits to both people and nature. Florence highlights this work in the Foreword for Heart of Palms.
How would you describe your book to someone?
This is an excerpt from the description that will appear in the University of Alabama Press spring catalog:
In the storied fifty-year history of the US Peace Corps, Heart of Palms is the first Peace Corps memoir set in Panama, the slender isthmus that connects two continents and two oceans. In her memoir, Meredith Cornett transports readers to the remote village of Tranquilla, where she is charged with countering the rapid deforestation of the Panama Canal watershed region. Combating deforestation leads Cornett into an equally fierce battle against her own feelings of fear and isolation. Her journey to Panama becomes a parallel journey into herself. In this way, Heart of Palms is much more than a record of her Peace Corps service; it is also a moving environmental coming-of-age story and nuanced meditation on one village’s relationship to nature.
What Peace Corps writers have you read and what book(s) would you recommend to others, and why?
I am an absolute Peace Corps memoir junkie.
My introduction to the sub-genre was the trilogy by Moritz Thompson (Ecuador), starting with Living Poor. I consider this a “must read” for any aspiring PCV.
I’ve recently read and enjoyed:
* Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali (Kris Holloway)
* River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (Peter Hessler – China)
(Hilary Liftin & Kate Montgomery – Kenya)
*these I recommend whole-heartedly. River Town is especially beautifully written.
Also within the past few years I’ve read:
Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin (Susana Herrera – Cameroon)
[Oh, and Peace Corps in Panama: Fifty Years, Many Voices — Meredith W. Cornett, Editor — of course! I know I'm biased, but I really do love the book!]
I’ve read many, many others, but these are my favorites so far!
Thank you, Meredith, for your time and for your books!
Thank you, John, for your interest and all you’ve done to support Peace Corps authors over the years. And thanks also to the wonderful Marian Haley Beil!