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Hopes Unrealized In Independent Jamaica

Ian Thomson won the prestigious Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize in 2010 for <em>The Dead Yard</em>. He is also the author of <em>Primo Levi: A Life</em>.
Laura Fleminger
Ian Thomson won the prestigious Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize in 2010 for The Dead Yard. He is also the author of Primo Levi: A Life.

At midnight on Aug. 5, 1962, Jamaicans hauled down the Union Jack for the last time, and raised the new colors — black, gold and green — of independent Jamaica.

In the capital, Kingston, 20,000 people gathered in the newly opened National Stadium to bid farewell to British rule. It was a grand and hopeful time. Britain's Princess Margaret attended the festivities, along with Lyndon B. Johnson, then the vice president of the United States.

But almost 50 years later, "a lot of Jamaicans feel that since the Union Jack came down, there has been largely disappointment," writer Ian Thomson tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Noah Adams. Parts of Jamaica are a vacation paradise, but much of the country is crippled by violence and corruption.

Thomson traveled all over the island, and everywhere he went, people asked the same question: What has Jamaica done with its independence? Thomson chronicled his search for the answer in his new book, The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica.

It's a difficult question for an outsider to answer. One woman challenged Thomson directly at a meeting of the Jamaican Historical Society. "You visitors are always getting it wrong," she told him. "Either it's golden beaches or it's guns, guns, guns. Is there nothing in between?"

Thomson says that despite the grim picture he paints of conditions on the island, he also did his best to depict the good alongside the bad.

"One of the things that I set out to do in writing this book is to look at the fabulous variety of this country," Thomson says. "It's a whole kind of bewildering melting pot of different skin colors, different peoples, different religions, different creeds ... so I was looking at that aspect of Jamaica in particular and celebrating it as much as I could."

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