CNN anchor Zain Asher looks back on the tragedy that helped drive her success
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Raising children can present dilemmas for parents. To name one, how tough should you be if your kids are wasting too much time on television instead of doing their schoolwork? Well, imagine taking scissors and cutting the power cord of the TV set, and telling your daughter she can watch television again when she's earned admission to Oxford University. That's a true story told in the new memoir by our guest, CNN international anchor Zain Asher.
She was born in London to parents who were immigrants from Nigeria. And much of her book is about her mother, who overcame poverty, famine and civil war in Nigeria before raising four children in a struggling neighborhood in London. Asher's early childhood was interrupted by a devastating family tragedy, which you'll soon hear about. Her mother then went to extraordinary lengths to give her children the skills, resilience and determination to be successful in life - and they were. One became a doctor, another a businessman. And Asher's brother is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor nominated for an Oscar for his role in "12 Years A Slave."
Zain Asher is a graduate of Oxford and the Columbia School of Journalism. She currently hosts the CNN International program "One World With Zain Asher," which airs weekdays at noon. Her new memoir is "Where The Children Take Us." Zain Asher, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ZAIN ASHER: Thank you so much. I'm so glad to be here.
DAVIES: Your story begins with the tragedy that befell your family when you were just 5 years old. You were living in London with your mom and dad and two older brothers. Give us just a little bit of the circumstances of your family life there in London at the time.
ASHER: My parents, as you mentioned, were immigrants from Nigeria at the time of the tragedy. They lived in London for about 18 years. And they were struggling. My dad was a trainee doctor on his way to becoming fully qualified. My mom ran a pharmacy in a neighborhood known as Brixton, which in the '80s was quite a difficult neighborhood. It was certainly beset by poverty and crime at the time. And so, you know, the book starts with pretty much the worst day in my family's life, September 1988. And my mother is in the living room. She's sort of going between the living room in the kitchen. She's waiting for a phone call. And then she gets that phone call.
And the voice on the other end of the line basically says, your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead, and we don't know which one. And you can imagine just the level of not just devastation and gut-wrenching pain, but I don't think there's another way to describe it other than a sort of emotional earthquake. You know, it turned out my father had passed away in this car crash. My father and brother were on a road trip in Nigeria because my dad just wanted to give my brother a better sense of who he was, our heritage and culture. And, you know, he lost his life that way. So...
DAVIES: So your mom, the information she gets in this call is that, you know, your son and your husband have been in this terrible car crash. One has died. One has survived. We don't know which. And she has to travel 4,000 miles to find out. One can only imagine the terror and panic of such a journey. She figures out a way to have somebody care for the kids. She goes through this long journey and finally enters a hospital. What does she discover?
ASHER: Oh, that journey was such a painful and difficult one, because, as you mentioned, my mother traveled to Nigeria really without knowing who she was going to be burying in her family that week, whether it was going to be her husband or her son. My father and brother were traveling on the road from Elegu (ph), which is where we're from, to Lagos, which is like the sort of biggest city in Nigeria. And on the road to Lagos, their car was hit by a speeding tractor trailer. And initially, everybody - talking about bystanders and the authorities - thought that everyone had died in the crash instantly. But then, you know, my family in the village, my Nigerian family in the villages had heard that everybody was killed. And then they had heard after that that no, no, no, maybe one had survived. We're not sure. Maybe there was somebody that survived. We think the little boy had survived.
And so there was so much confusion. And because the authorities thought that everyone had passed away instantly, everybody from the scene of the crash was taken to a morgue. And it was only when my father and my brother were taken to the morgue that the driver sort of opened the back of the truck and began unloading the bodies, that he realized that my brother was still breathing. And so my mother arrives in this hospital in Nigeria. And it was just such a difficult moment because on the one hand, yes, her son has been spared. Yes, her son is alive. But on the other hand, she's now having to plan a funeral for, you know, the love of her life.
DAVIES: And this remarkable detail of your brother being discovered when people were taking bodies out of the wagon at the morgue and discovered one of them breathing, that 11-year-old kid was Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor who so many of our listeners, I'm sure, have seen in the films. So she goes through this funeral, which was a huge thing in Nigeria, must have been emotionally numb. And then she returns to London and leaves her 11-year-old son there, still recuperating in a hospital, goes back where there - you were there. You're 5. Your older brother is about 14 or so, right? What is your mom like when she returns initially?
ASHER: So for the longest time, she locked herself in her bedroom, really finding it difficult to leave, finding human interaction quite difficult. She's obviously just emotionally broken as a person. So sometimes she would come out of her bedroom once a day, maybe twice a day. She would make sure we had something to eat. And then she would go back into her bedroom, lock the door and just cry and cry and cry and cry for hours at a time. And even when she eventually went back to work, it was sort of the same thing. She would be serving customers. She ran a pharmacy. And she would emerge, you know, into the sort of bathroom she had out back and just cry. And people would walk into this shop that was unmanned. And there was sort of no pharmacist to help them because the mother would be, you know, out the back crying.
She just - I mean, my dad was really everything to her. It was - she was - he was really the only sort of man she'd ever held hands with, only man she'd ever kissed. You know, they met when she was 14. And so they had planned their entire lives together. They really were the loves of each other's lives. So it was not just, yes, her partner and her husband and the father of her children, but it was really her everything. And so broken is how I would describe it - her emotionally at that point.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Zain Asher. She's an anchor for CNN International. She has a new memoir, mostly about her mother, called "Where The Children Take Us." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Zain Asher. She's an anchor for CNN International. She hosts the program "One World With Zain Asher," which airs weekdays at noon. She has a new memoir about her mother, who was an immigrant from Nigeria, who raised Zain and three other children in London.
So after your father was killed in Nigeria and your mother was simply shattered by it, your grandmother came to stay and just help out with taking the children because it was clear she needed some help. Your older brother, you describe, you know, began acting out, you know, hanging out on the streets, getting into trouble, was actually eventually expelled from school. And there came a point where your mom somehow turned to face the world. Do you know what allowed her to do that?
ASHER: I mean, I think it was just this idea that, you know, her family was coming apart. You know, most of the time, she had no idea where my oldest brother was. And he used to be a brilliant student. Before my father passed away, I mean, this is a kid that was getting awards at his school for best in math or best in science. And to see my brother Obinze, his light dim and him sort of, you know, go off the rails in that way by hanging out with the wrong crowds, getting expelled from school, you know, talking back to his teachers, getting into fights at school, was really a massive wake-up call for my mother because she realized that her family's future was teetering on the brink. And somehow through all of that, it was a big wake-up call for her. And she began to draw on an inner strength that I describe in the book. And that's when she began to really be a lot more present and focused in getting us back on track and keeping us focused on anything, you know, besides the empty chair at the dinner table. That was a big turning point for us.
DAVIES: What rules did she make for the family?
ASHER: Oh, my gosh, so many. And she started the rules at that point, but they continued throughout the end of my high school. The first rule was a family book club because her main goal at that point was to keep Binze on track. As I mentioned, he'd been expelled from school.
DAVIES: That's your oldest brother, yeah.
ASHER: That's my oldest brother. And he was, you know, hanging out with the wrong crowds and, you know, he was going off the rails. And so one of the first rules she instilled was a family book club. So that meant that my brothers, especially because they were older - I was only 5 going on 6 years old. My brothers especially would be assigned to read one book a week and discuss it around the dinner table. And the discussions would usually take place on Fridays. But it was so powerful for us because it just gave us something to focus on besides loss and besides pain, for example. And my mother was a Nigerian Black, obviously, immigrant woman, single mother now, a widow, raising three Black children in a neighborhood that had a lot of problems. And so she really needed to roll up her sleeves, she felt, to keep us on track and to keep us focused.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, one of the things I love about this part of the story is you say that, you know, while she was an educated person in Nigeria, she didn't have a lot of background in literature. So she starts going to the library and just asking the librarian, you know, what are some classics that we should all read - and taking this on herself so that she is prepared to participate, in addition, of course, to holding on a full-time job and making sure everyone is fed and and she's pregnant with your soon-to-arrive sister. It's pretty remarkable. You know, you and your siblings were going to school in classes that were overwhelmingly white. What was your experience like? Did you feel picked on? Did you feel accepted?
ASHER: Well, I would say that it was a mixed bag. So in terms of some of the things that my mother did for me when it came to our education, she at one point asked my teachers for the school syllabus for the entire year so she could figure out what I was going to be learning in school in, say, a month or two, for example. And she would teach it to me at home beforehand so that by the time I learned it in school, I already knew it. And that was genius because it had several effects on my sort of - this was in elementary school but my elementary school experience because, A, it meant that my teachers thought I was much smarter than I actually was because everything that we learned in class, I already knew it because my mother was teaching me in advance at home. But it also meant that my teachers would use me as a role model of sorts for the other children. So in one way, you know, being one of the only Black girls in my school because I was shining academically, you know, I sort of - I did feel accepted.
However, there were lots of other experiences that I had that were quite difficult when it came to race. You've got to remember, this is sort of the early 1990s in England, you know, before people were, you know, politically correct. You know, when my parents first arrived in England, there was the whole sort of - this is in the '70s - the sort of keep England white movement. And we were far removed from that because we're in the 1990s, but that still meant that there were issues when it came to racism for my siblings and I. And so that meant it was difficult to find acceptance among peers. Chiwetel had - again, it was a mixed situation because at times, he didn't feel accepted, but because he always, from the age of 13, really thrived as an actor and was the sort of shining star at school as an actor, it meant at times there was acceptance. So it oscillated quite a bit for us.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, this story of your mom asking for the syllabus of your elementary school work and then teaching it to you ahead of time, I mean, you describe this as being a time when you weren't happy at school. You weren't doing particularly well in school. And it completely turned things around. So it really worked. And I'm just imagining your mom doing this. I mean, she's working all day running the family pharmacy by herself, on her feet 10 hours a day. She got to, you know, cook dinner and then she's got to learn this stuff herself, the multiplication tables and the grammar or whatever you're learning, and then go over it with you. It's, I mean, hard to imagine the stamina that she summoned to do that.
ASHER: Yeah. She would come back - she would look at my school syllabus, figure out, yes, you know, you're going to be learning the times tables, let's say, next month or two months. And times table by times table, she would sit and teach me beforehand. And I remember the times table experience was such a powerful one for me because it was the first thing that I remember her teaching me. And I remember going to school, and while everybody, you know, was just learning their two times table or their three times table, I already knew my 12 off by heart. And it was just such a simple thing to do to teach your child in advance of what they're learning in school. But it had the most profound impact on me because I learnt cause and effect in terms of studying. I understood at that point - this is at 7, 8 years old. I understood that, you know, what you put in is what you get out. And seeing the teachers sort of treat me differently, seeing myself sort of given gold stars and various other scholastic awards just had this amazing impact on my self-confidence. And it really fueled my desire and my drive to come home, roll up my sleeves and study even more.
DAVIES: You know, in addition to all the other things your mom had to worry about, there was crime. I mean, this was a neighborhood where, you know, there were there were crimes. Was she directly affected?
ASHER: Yes. So my mom, as I mentioned, ran a pharmacy. And it was in a difficult neighborhood. She was robbed at the pharmacy multiple times. And, obviously, I'm young at the time, so I don't - she's not going to come home and tell me that she was robbed at knifepoint when I'm sort of 7 or 8 years old. But what's remarkable is that, yeah, she did share these stories years later with me. But what's remarkable is that even on those days, even after going to the pharmacy, being robbed at knifepoint, she would still come back with me, and she would still study. You know, she would still study. And it's bringing tears to my eyes thinking about it because the sorts of things that she had to contend with and do battle with and the resilience that she displayed despite all of that is remarkable. It's astounding, actually.
DAVIES: Now, your brother Chiwetel, who was the 11-year-old who survived the accident in Nigeria that killed your father, eventually comes back and just showed an incredible talent for acting and takes up studying Shakespeare, writes passages from Shakespeare all over his walls. And I gather your mom, while she truly believed in hard work and academic discipline, was more interested in things, I guess, like law and science than in the arts. But there comes a point at which, suddenly, she gets it and realizes what a special thing this is. You want to share that with us?
ASHER: There was one moment where one of Chiwetel's teachers persuaded her to watch him in an upcoming school play. I think it was "Measure For Measure." She watched, you know, didn't really understand what was going on. You know, she'd never really been to a Shakespeare play before in her life. But she sat there. And at the very end, Chiwetel tell came on, you know, after the curtain call and, you know, was bowing to the audience. And she saw the applause, the level of applause in the auditorium, in this all-white, you know, auditorium in south London, to see people giving her son a standing ovation for nothing more than, in her mind, acting in a play. She realized there was something special going on there and that she just sort of felt it was her duty to nurture that as much as she could.
And she did because of the pride and the joy. You know, I mention in the book that Nigerians love the idea of representing our culture well in other sort of environments. That's sort of a big deal for Nigerians. And so seeing my brother sort of honored in this way and given that kind of acclaim was a big deal for her. And so she came back home, and she bought herself her first copy of a Shakespeare play, and she read "Measure For Measure." I don't know if she understood what she was reading, but she went through the text slowly, sort of trying to relive, you know, her son's moment on that stage but also trying to find her own ways to sort of encourage him and push him to be better. It's quite remarkable that she would teach herself Shakespeare in this way after seeing my brother perform.
DAVIES: Let's talk a bit about your mom's background in Nigeria. She and your dad met as teenagers. She was 14. He was 16. They didn't live in the same town but were totally smitten with each other. But they met in 1965, just a few years after the country became independent from Great Britain as ethnic conflict was brewing, which would lead to a bloody civil war. You want to just briefly explain what happened in that conflict?
ASHER: The Biafra war in Nigeria was one of the most brutal civil wars in history. I mean, it only lasted - I say only, but, you know, it was 2 1/2 years. But it really was the stuff of nightmares. It was a dreadful time to come of age. And that is when my mother was a teenager. You know, she was sort of gearing up towards the end of high school, sort of 15, 16 years old as war was brewing. And it was because my tribe, which happened to be in the eastern part of the country, was trying to secede from Nigeria and form their own independent country. And so it meant that more people died from starvation during that time - because hunger was used as a weapon of war - than bullets and bombs. But the bombs were relentless nonetheless.
So it was a really difficult time. My parents actually didn't see each other for a long time because they were just, you know, scrambling to find shelter in different towns, sometimes behind enemy lines, sometimes not. But they were separated for a long time after their romance actually began and was starting to blossom. And then they found each other towards the end of the war. And so it's a beautiful story. And it was just so hopeful because despite sort of all the challenges with losing someone and not sort of being able to track down someone in the middle of a civil war, my dad tracked her down and found her towards the end of the war. And then they moved to Europe to start a life together. So yeah, their love story really survived all of that.
DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Zain Asher. She's an anchor for CNN International. She hosts the program "One World With Zain Asher," which airs weekdays at noon. Her new memoir is "Where The Children Take Us." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIONEL LOUEKE'S "SKYLARK")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with CNN International anchor Zain Asher about her new memoir which tells the story of her mother, an immigrant from Nigeria who survived poverty, famine and civil war before coming to England. She lost her husband in a traffic accident when Zain was 5 and managed to raise four children herself in a crime-ridden London neighborhood. She was tough at times, but all four children got good educations and did well. Asher's brother is the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. She hosts the program "One World With Zain Asher," which airs weekdays at noon. Her new memoir is "Where The Children Take Us."
When you were 9 years old, living in London with your mom and your three siblings - this is remarkable - your mom comes to you and says she's going to send you home for training. What did she mean?
ASHER: Yeah. So in Nigerian culture, if you are Nigerian and you are raising your children in the West - so typically, in either England or the United States - at some point, usually before the end of high school, it is discussed and often acted upon that your children will be sent back to Nigeria to live with extended relatives for a brief period of time. Now, that brief period of time would be without you, without the parents. It would be usually with extended relatives. And it could last anywhere from one year to five years. But the idea behind it is that Nigerian parents want their kids to spend some time in Nigeria back home, even if they are born and raised in England or the U.S., because the Nigerian sort of values include discipline, hard work, resilience, respect for elders, and they really want to find a way to inculcate that, especially during a time in a child's life when they are still, quote-unquote, "malleable" - so not really towards the end of high school because, you know, their ways are set by then, but usually by the age of 9, 10, 11, 12.
DAVIES: So you go there. And, you know, you mentioned that you didn't do a lot of cooking in London because your mom wanted you to focus on school. So now you got to help in kitchen, with kitchen duty. Describe the kitchen and maybe one of your first meals that you helped with.
ASHER: Yeah (laughter), OK. Yes. So I arrived. And, you know, my grandparents obviously didn't have much money, and so we were in a neighborhood called Abakpa-Nike, which is one of the poorest parts of Enugu, you know, to the point where when I meet Nigerian today and I say that, oh, my - I lived in Abakpa-Nike for two years, they are so shocked, and they're like, my God, you're from there? Because that part of the city was really poor. And so, you know, a lot of times in Nigerian culture, especially with, you know, one of our cousins who was from the village, some people did catch their own food. And so when I was there, you know, I sort of witnessed and participated in seeing this - Chinua (ph), who is one of my distant cousins who was living with my grandparents, catch her own food, and it was a pigeon.
And so coming from London, having to do that (laughter) was really difficult. And I was getting a taste of what my mother had experienced during her childhood and what my grandmother had experienced during her childhood as well. And again, this is all - you cannot go through that and not be a different person. If you come from London or you're living in New York and you experience two years in that kind of environment, you are a changed person as a result, and you take nothing for granted afterwards. So it did have the desired effect, but it was rough (laughter).
DAVIES: Your mom had this idea that you should go to Oxford University. And you were a good student, but this was a huge mountain to climb academically. You had to have tiptop grades, and you had to have recommendations from teachers even to apply. And then the entrance exam process was really brutal. And initially, you know, the high school counselor said, no, no, yeah, she's not ready for this. One thing she had to do was get you interested in the idea. How did she do that?
ASHER: Yeah. So when you are an immigrant from, you know, another country and you get a chance to move to England, education becomes almost like a fixation because you've been given this lottery ticket to change your family's future. And you - the last thing you want to do is waste that opportunity. And so for my mother, she really believed that Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, places like that, were the ticket to a better life, so help her God. I mean, that's really what she believed. And so when I was 13, she would just sort of - she just wanted to expose me to Oxford University, right? So she would put me in the car, and her and I would drive together. It was about an hour and a half drive or so from where we lived. And we would just spend the day, maybe just a few hours, just walking around Oxford. Oxford doesn't really have a central campus, so the university is folded into the town. And so we would just wander around, and we would go every so often.
But that, again, changed my subconscious belief because there I was, this 13-year-old girl, I barely even knew what Oxford was or why it was relevant or what its reputation was at all, but just by being there and sort of seeing the people there and sort of breathing the air in, if you will, it sort of began to allow me to dream about the possibility that maybe, eventually, I could attend this university, too. It began to feel normal, almost like I belonged. And then, you know, every single time that I sort of rebelled in my teenage years, which of course I did, you know, when I turned 14, 15, rather than punishing me or grounding me, she would take me back to see Oxford, you know, to show me something better to aspire to. So that was the first thing she did.
DAVIES: Well, in order to do this, in order to even get your teachers to give you the recommendations that you would need to apply, you needed to really get your grades in to kind of the elite status. And, you know, you didn't want to put as much - I mean, you're a teenager. You want to watch TV. You want to talk to your friends on the phone. What did she do to make sure that you put the time in? This is pretty draconian (laughter).
ASHER: It's pretty draconian, yeah. So she - one day, she was pacing her bedroom, and she was just thinking to herself, what can I do? And she'd heard from my teachers that, you know, your child is smart. You know, she does well. But listen; Oxford requires a whole different level in terms of grades, and your child really just isn't there yet. But here are some other universities you can apply to instead. And, you know, coming from Nigeria, she hadn't really heard of the others, you know, even though they were very good. So she had her heart sort of set on Oxford for me. And so she paced her bedroom, and she thought to herself, what can I do? What can I do to guarantee that my child is going to go to Oxford University? What can I do? And then she came in to my bedroom, and she said, oh, my God, I've got it. I know exactly what to do to guarantee - guarantee - that you are going to go to Oxford University. And I said, what, Mom? And she decided to ban me from watching any television whatsoever until I had an actual Oxford acceptance letter in hand. So this would have been roughly around two years, just under two years or so. And, you know, it sounds so extreme when I tell this story, but I would say that I am so grateful that she did that because, honestly, it worked.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Zain Asher. She's an anchor for CNN International. Her new memoir is "Where The Children Take Us." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with CNN International anchor Zain Asher about her new memoir, "Where The Children Take Us." It's about her mother, an immigrant from Nigeria who raised four children in a struggling neighborhood in London after her husband had died in a car accident. When we left off, Asher was recalling her mother's determination that Zain get into Oxford University and her imposing a rule when Zain was 16 that she couldn't watch any television until she got an acceptance letter, which would mean nearly two years without TV.
Telling you not to watch television is requiring a lot of willpower on your part. And so at a point, she comes and literally cuts the power cord to the television in half. It is over. And then there's a matter of you spending time on the phone with your friends. What did she do about that?
ASHER: Yeah. So, you know, if you stop your child from watching television, you know, they're going to replace one distraction for another. And for me, luckily, during that point in time, there was no, like, Netflix or YouTube or, you know, apps or Instagram. You know, I just started spending more and more time on the phone. And so one day, she gets what is called - you don't have them in America, but they're sort of widely used in England in, like, doctor's offices, at least, you know, when I was growing up. They're residential pay phones. And what they look like is a normal, tiny, little phone, but it has a slot for coins on one side.
And so she brought home a pay phone, and if I wanted to talk to my friends or anyone, I would have to pay 20 pence a minute. And that meant that I didn't talk on the phone very much. And if I did, it was - it had to be an emergency. And I didn't really have television, and so I had nothing else to do but study. That is how I got into Oxford.
DAVIES: Well, it's remarkable. And, you know, you describe how, actually, as you adapted to it, a group of friends came to appreciate - you would come and study together. You had this kind of almost cult of studying in your house. And in the end - right? - I mean, the grades shot up, and the teachers gave you the recommendations you needed. And then you went to - and the exam to get in, which you describe in the book, were just incredibly tough and stressful and brutal. And I love the fact that, in the end, you wait and wait, and then the letter comes. You've been accepted. And then you have to use the pay phone and find a coin to call your mom and tell her, hey, we made it (laughter).
ASHER: Yeah. You know, that day that I got that acceptance letter, I was so nervous because I'd put in, you know, two years of my life and focused on really nothing else but studying. And, you know, a lot of people from my background see a place like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, and they just don't even bother to apply because they just think it's not for - it's not - that place is not for me. Even if they have the grades, they don't even think they can actually get in. But because of, you know, some of the things my mother did, I actually really believed that I could achieve that dream. And so when the letter finally came, yeah, I had to call my mom and tell her. And she was at work at the pharmacy. And, you know, she cried. You know, she was so, so happy because it was just really proof that anything was possible.
And you think about all that she'd sacrificed for us to be in England in the first place, I mean, even before my - you know, she lost my dad. But, you know, going through the civil war in Nigeria, at that time, people had to eat snakes to survive. They had to eat crickets and termites to survive at that time. And so going through all of that and deciding to sort of draw a line under that kind of past, starting afresh in England because you believe that, you know, this will give you a fresh start, and this will allow your children to thrive, especially in terms of what they have access to with their education. And seeing all of that manifest in this one letter from Oxford University saying, we are pleased to welcome you to - was just - I mean, that was just a beautiful moment for our family.
DAVIES: You - so you got in. You finished with degrees in French and Spanish. You went to the United States, attended the Columbia School of Journalism. And, you know, you found your way into journalism, you know, small jobs at first. But it's interesting that, as you describe how you got your first reporting job and how you got an anchor job, in every case, you kind of followed that pattern you had learned from your mother of preparing ahead of time for what you might encounter, you know, practicing kind of auditions and, in fact, practicing reporting before you ever had a chance to do it. That's something that's stayed with you, hasn't it?
ASHER: Absolutely. I mean, that is the two things that I would say that my mother taught me about success. Number one is, you know, what I sort of refer to in the book as the eight-hour rule. And, you know, my mother sort of growing up...
DAVIES: What's the eight-hour rule?
ASHER: I'll explain. So my mother, growing up would make us divide our day into three equal parts. So obviously, 24 hours in a day, three equal parts - so eight hours, you know, for sleeping, eight hours to be spent at school, generally, or sort of at work if you're an adult. And the last 8 hours would be spent working towards our dreams. And that was her idea just to sort of, again, give us focus, give us discipline. And, you know, her whole philosophy was that, listen. Everybody, generally speaking, spends seven or eight hours sleeping, generally. Obviously, there are exceptions. And everybody, generally, if they're lucky enough to have just one job, will spend roughly eight, maybe nine hours working.
ASHER: a day. So the only thing that differentiates you from the next person is how you spend the last 8 hours of your day. And so when it came to, you know, becoming an adult and sort of exploring the working world in the United States, that was something I really remembered, like, understanding the importance of accounting for my time. I have to say that, you know, when I was young and single, before I had children, I could really focus on the last 8 hours of my day and using it to prepare in advance. But obviously, having kids changes that because the last 8 hours of your day are not yours anymore (laughter).
DAVIES: Right. You know where that's going. Yeah. You know, a lot of people would say, yeah, that's - you do need fun, too, don't you? Do you have fun?
ASHER: Yes, now I do have fun. But I would say that, no, my childhood didn't have, if I'm honest, that much, quote-unquote, "fun" in the traditional sense. But, you know, what my childhood did for me is - it wasn't the easiest childhood, but it prepared me for real life, you know, and that I'm grateful for. I think that, you know, I could have had a very different childhood or a very different life now had my mother not been as strict, had my mother been a bit more relaxed. And I would take the childhood that I got every single time.
DAVIES: You know, the name of the book is "Where The Children Take Us." And I was reading it, and I was thinking, this is really where my mother took me or where our mothers take us. But it does come from a moment in the book. Do you want to share that with us?
ASHER: Yes. So my mother obviously had a difficult time fitting in in England and feeling like she was actually welcome and belonged, especially as a foreign immigrant coming in in the 1970s. And so she felt quite lonely. I mean, especially also after my father passed away, that loneliness grew louder. And so, you know, it would have been about nine years ago, my brother was actually awarded an OBE by the Queen. And that's an award that the Queen gives every year to honor those who have made a difference in a particular chosen field. And, you know, we went to Buckingham Palace. And my mum was there when sort of Prince Charles - she watched from the front row as Prince Charles pinned this golden sort of medal on my brother's lapel. And, you know, they sat and they spoke - they stood and they spoke, rather, for several moments.
And it was just a really proud moment because my mother, after not fitting in in British society for so long, to be able to go to Buckingham Palace and watch as your son is awarded this medal by the royal family is quite an astounding moment. And she decided that she was going to wear something that was very Nigerian, you know, to show the world that, you know, I'm a proud, strong Nigerian woman. She wore a Nigerian outfit to the ceremony. And afterwards, you know, her and my brother were sort of linking arms. And she was, you know, wiping away the tears that were streaming down her face. And she turned back to the palace, looking at the queen's residence, and then turned to us and said, you never know where your children will take you. And that is where the title of the book comes from.
DAVIES: Well, Zain Asher, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ASHER: Thank you so much.
DAVIES: Zain Asher is an anchor for CNN International. She hosts the program "One World With Zain Asher," which airs weekdays at noon. Her new memoir is "Where The Children Take Us." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Tasha," novelist Brian Morris' (ph) memoir about his mother, which Maureen says is a pleasure to read. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.