Zain Asher is the anchor and host of CNN International’s One World with Zain Asher. She recently moved to Montclair with her husband and two children, and last year released Where the Children Take Us, a memoir centered on her mother’s profound influence throughout her often challenging London childhood. Asher’s brother is the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.
Asher recently spoke with NJM about what inspired her story—and what she hopes readers take away from it.
What made you want to write your new book, Where the Children Take Us?
I had just turned 36, which is how old my mother was when she got that phone call about a car crash in which my father died [in Nigeria]. The second reason was becoming a mother myself—that’s when I fully understood the gravity of what my mother went through and the extent of the sacrifices that she made. I believed that if I collated all of these lessons that I learned into a book, someone out there could benefit from it. It’s not meant to be prescriptive, but to inspire.
How did your father’s death change you, your mom and your family?
Initially, it was an emotional earthquake. It was the greatest shock to our system that you could imagine. My mother was pregnant and wasn’t able to function and be a parent. It was difficult for my older brother, too. The turning point was when he got kicked out of school. That’s when my mother rolled up her sleeves and began to fight for us.
Your mother saved your family from falling apart. Where do you think she found that strength?
I’ve been deeply inspired and strengthened by how much our mother fought for us. She tried to be both a mother and a father to us. I can’t even imagine where she got the energy to do that—especially as a single mom with a newborn baby. Every time my willpower is running on low, I remember my mom and I’m filled with gratitude for her.
Can you talk about the ways that your mother inspired you to succeed, such as encouraging you to attend Oxford University?
Sometimes in our society, there can be a tendency to not appreciate and not welcome ambition in women. My mother was the total opposite of that because of what she experienced as a young woman [during the Nigerian Civil War]; she ate termites and crickets to survive. For her, ambition was all about survival. We lived in a neighborhood with poverty and crime. She had to fight for her children no matter what.
My mother would say: ‘You’re just as smart as the people who [attend Oxford].’ She tore down those walls in my mind.
How did your family and your upbringing lead you to become an anchor at CNN?
My mother was good at finding the work-around for anything. When my teachers said I wasn’t good enough to attend Oxford, she said, ‘What can I do to change that?’ Her solution was, if it’s about hard work, then I can make it easier [for my daughter to succeed] by eliminating distractions. I didn’t get into Oxford because I was the smartest person in the room; my mother created an environment where I had nothing to do but study. She took away our TV and our phone.
What would you like people to take away from your book?
The book is a memoir, but there’s so much more to it than that. I wanted to showcase the beauty of my culture and my country. It’s not meant to make anyone pro-immigration, but I do feel like I can showcase through my family that immigrants have a lot to offer. Our culture is vibrant and rich. I was given a gift by being born in the UK and what I was given. I haven’t taken it for granted. You can’t put a price tag on being a British or U.S. citizen.
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