The story of a woman who survived genocide, famine, poverty, and crushing grief to rise from war-torn Africa to the streets of South London and eventually the drawing rooms of Buckingham Palace, Where the Children Take Us is an unforgettable portrait of strength, tenacity, love, and perseverance embodied in one towering woman.
Monarch had the opportunity to ask Zain five questions.
MONARCH: Your mother did an amazing job raising her family. What caused you to write this memoir, Where the Children Take Us?
ZAIN ASHER: The question I get asked the most is “How did she do it? How did your mother—a widowed African immigrant who barely finished high school—manage to raise a CNN anchor, an Oscar-nominated actor, a medical doctor, and a successful entrepreneur?” I wanted to answer that question specifically in this book. We all face struggles and challenges in our lives. My mother confronted tragedy I cannot even imagine, yet she found a way up and out that is so extraordinary, so unlikely, that I felt compelled to share it with the world. This book is a celebration of everything she is. My mother is an unsung force that pushes my siblings and me to be our best even today. It is my hope that this story, her story, can help a lot more people.
MONARCH: You were pushed out of the nest so to speak. How did you manage to not fall into the traps most young people do?
ZAIN ASHER: I was only five when my father was killed in a car crash. I had two older brothers and a little sister on the way. My mother was left to raise us alone while working 60-hour weeks at a tiny pharmacy in a neighborhood beset by poverty and crime. It would have been very easy for us to go down the wrong path. Lots of our friends did. The only reason we didn’t is because of my mother. She gave everything she had to make discipline, responsibility, and inspiration a daily part of our lives. She plastered newspaper clippings of Black success stories all over our walls to show us what we could achieve. She started a family book club to teach us literary classics that she had barely even heard of. When my brother discovered acting at 13, she taught herself Shakespeare to push him to be better. And when distractions persisted, she literally cut the television cord and installed a residential payphone. There’s a lot more I write about in the book. Her sacrifice, commitment, and tough love made all the difference.
MONARCH:Growing up, did you feel pressure to succeed?
ZAIN ASHER: We felt incredible pressure to succeed. I don’t think we would have succeeded if we hadn’t. The world didn’t expect much of us, but my mother expected everything. We could also see how hard she was working to keep the family on the right track. It was really hard, especially in those early years after my dad died. She was forced to take on the role of mother, father, disciplinarian, cook, cleaner, teacher, and breadwinner. We all wanted to make sure her sacrifice would be worth it in the end.
MONARCH: How did being of Nigerian descent, play a role in your new book?
ZAIN ASHER: This book is a celebration of the Black family and my Nigerian heritage as much as it is a celebration of my mother. She raised us with the same tough love style and discipline that she had been raised with—and her parents before that. While not many people may know it, Nigerian parents have been churning out overachieving children in every corner of the world for generations. I include lots of interesting examples in the book. We are often overlooked, and sometimes looked down upon, by political leaders in the West, but we have an important story to tell. There’s also a beautiful sense of community pride I write a lot about. The people in the village where my mother grew up celebrated our achievements as if they were their own. When I got into Oxford, they celebrated from 4,000 miles away as if their children had gotten into Oxford. This is their book as much as it is mine.
MONARCH: What would you like readers to take away from the book?
ZAIN ASHER: I want people to walk away from my book believing that we all have a profound inner strength to overcome whatever challenges we face in this life. It doesn’t matter where we live, what the world expects of us, whether we have money or both parents—we can overcome. And we can use our successes to lift others. I write about “uplifters” in the book. My mother was constantly searching for examples of Black success stories—people we knew in our neighborhood or people we didn’t on TV or in newspapers—to inspire us, and she made sure we were exposed to them almost every day. I never imagined I would someday be an uplifter for someone else. I want people who read our story to believe that they, too, can become uplifters in their communities. We all have an inner strength. I hope our story awakens yours.
Zain Ejiofor Asher was born to first-generation Nigerian parents in South London. She was raised by her mother after losing her father in a tragic car accident when she was just five. A graduate of Oxford University and Columbia University, she is currently the anchor of One World with Zain Asher on CNN International. Asher’s brothers are Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and successful entrepreneur Obinze. Her sister, Kandibe, is a medical doctor. Zain is passionate about her family, her career, and being of service. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.