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Black boys must aim to be outstanding

HACKNEY HERO: Emeka Egbuonu

EAST LONDONER Emeka Egbuonu is an exciting writer, painting an authentic picture of contemporary London.

The recent launch of his new novel Ambitions of The Deprived follows the lives of teenage friends in east London and eloquently reflects the capital’s changing cultural, social and economic narrative.

The 28-year-old college lecturer, who grew up in Hackney, already has the acclaimed non-fiction book Consequences, under his belt. But for his second literary offering, Egbuonu took inspiration from his own campaigning to see the joint enterprise laws abolished – so that people cannot be found guilty by association – in order to create a work of non-fiction.

Set in Hackney in 2005 – before the borough received its fashionable makeover – Ambitions of The Deprived chronicles the lives of four teenage friends – two black boys, a mixed race boy, and a white boy – embarking on their individual journeys of discovery and the barriers they face getting there.

Amongst their challenges is trying to stay away from a local gang that threatens to see one man face jail for witnessing a murder – known as joint enterprise – and his friends’ fight to get justice for him.

The book’s narrative was also heavily informed by Egbuonu’s previous role as a youth worker in Hackney; a job that saw him encouraging ambitious young people, in the face of their personal challenges – not dissimilar to the lives of the book’s main characters.

Here, Egbuonu talks to Life & Style about his new book and how he’s encouraging more young people to read.


Congratulations on your new book, what has the feedback been like so far?
The feedback has been great. Many people have told me that they enjoyed it. Many are saying they could see it as a film. I’ve also had some reviews that have been very positive.

Do you think more children and young adults would read more (and actually enjoy reading) if they were able to relate to the characters?
Yes, I strongly believe they would. I had a young man who finished the book in one day; he got in contact with me to say that he could see himself in the characters and he wished he could read more books that would have that affect on him.

What kind of books did you grow up reading?
Growing up, I was reading more factual based books. I was into African history and biographies of great achievers of the past. I only started reading fiction books recently. When I decided I wanted to write a novel, I had to actually read a few first.

What messages do you hope readers will take away from Ambitions of The Deprived?
The message I want readers to take from the book is that no matter where you come from, you can strive to succeed. The power of friendships and how that can flourish and deteriorate when the pressure is on. To see the unjust doctrine of joint enterprise.

You've worked with hundreds of young people. What would you say are the key factors to why young black people, especially boys, are underachieving?
There are many factors, from the education system to the exclusion rates. I do not like pointing the finger. I like to take responsibility and I would say the bar has been dropped when it comes to young black males. There is a lack of belief, desire and motivation to succeed.

We need to raise the bar of expectation, letting them know that average is not good enough. Just finishing school is not good enough. Aim for outstanding.

A key way of doing that is having young black men as teachers, not just their mentors or teaching assistants.

I know all other people outside this group mean well, but I know the impact of having a strong black male figure in my school who said to me ‘yes you can’ over and over again. It gave me strength. That message needs to be reciprocated at home as well.

You’ve been called a role model for young black men, how does that feel?
It feels really good because it shows that I am doing all the right things to help shape the minds of the up and coming generation. To not only inspire by saying but by doing is the most important thing.

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