“I’m a firm believer that the issue isn’t whether or not your opportunities come. The issue is whether you’re ready when your opportunity comes.” CNN anchor Zain Asher joins Zibby to talk about her memoir, Where the Children Take Us, which documents her family’s tragedy and triumphs. The two discuss why Zain wrote this book to honor her mother who raised her and her three siblings after her dad died in a car accident, which life lessons shaped her work ethic, and how her family grappled with race throughout the different phases of their lives.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Zain. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable.

Zain E. Asher: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: I’m still smiling ear to ear because before we started recording this, Zain had been talking to me about Bookends and has been the nicest person ever. I’m literally just glowing as I talk to her about her book.

Zain: I loved it, Zibby, honestly. I couldn’t put it down.

Zibby: Thank you. Where the Children Take Us, speaking of couldn’t put it down, I posted that I read this all on a plane. I was frantically reading. I fell in love with you and your family, all the things that you’ve been through, the way that you write. I am so rooting for you, for everyone. I was like, wait, I want to hear more now. Where is the PS about this brother? What is her little sister doing? I need to hear more. You did a fabulous, amazing job of taking us through your life and your parents’ lives and the history and so much. Why don’t you explain what your book’s about, why you decided to write and share all of this about your family and your life? We’ll go from there.

Zain: Oh, my god, Zibby, thank you so much. The book was a difficult one to write because it starts off, as you know, with basically the worst day in my family’s life, collective life. My mother is at home in London. She gets a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line basically says to her, “Your husband and your son have been involved in a car crash. One of them is dead, and we don’t know which one.” It is earth-shattering. She, to this day, will describe that phone call as an emotional earthquake. There’s no other way to put it. My dad and my brother were on a road trip in Nigeria, which is where we’re originally from. They were traveling from this small town called Enugu going on the road to Lagos, which is like the New York of Nigeria. It’s supposed to be a six-hour drive. Somewhere along the freeway, the person driving them swerved into the opposite lane to cut traffic. As the car went around the bend, it hit a blind spot, and it was crushed by a speeding tractor trailer. Everybody in the car was killed instantly apart from one person in the backseat where my dad and my brother were sitting. Initially, the relatives in our family, extended relatives who were all living in Nigeria, were told that both of them had died in the car accident. Then hours later, some other relatives heard word that, no, maybe one of them survived. Maybe the little boy might have survived. Hours later, another group of relatives had actually heard that both of them were killed. There was so much confusion on the scene of the accident. There was just a lot of debate happening. While the debate was going on, somebody actually called my mother to tell them without having all the facts. It turned out it was my dad who died in that car accident. My mother traveled to Nigeria and on the plane, had no idea who she was going to be burying.

Zibby: And she was pregnant, by the way.

Zain: She was pregnant. She had three kids, and she was pregnant. No idea who she was going to be burying that week, whether it was going to be her husband or her son. It was pure agony, the wait. As I mentioned, she gets to Nigeria. She goes to the hospital. The hospital’s attached to a morgue, so she was told where to go. Her relatives, our relatives, were planning on meeting her there to break the news, when they eventually found out, gently, but she got there before them, and she found out that it was my dad who died. It was her son, my brother, who had been spared. The book really is a celebration of my mother’s strength. One of the questions I’ve always been asked my whole life is, how on earth did your mother do it? How on earth did this woman who was an African widow, immigrant, obviously, growing up or living in South London in a neighborhood that was kind of rough, beset by poverty and crime, how on earth did she manage to raise you, a CNN anchor, your brother, an Oscar-nominated actor? My brother was nominated for starring in 12 Years a Slave. He’s an actor; my sister, a doctor; and my eldest brother, a very successful entrepreneur. How on earth could this woman have done that? The book is a celebration of my mother. It’s my way of saying thank you to her. It’s my way of really explaining in detail how she did it, which I think is a very — even though it starts off with this difficult, heartbreaking tragedy that happened to us, it’s ultimately a story of hope.

Zibby: Wow. Yes, all of that. Amazing. It is a story of hope. She is the most remarkable woman. She’s still alive. I feel like I want to give her a huge hug and be like, hats off to you from all of the moms out there. It’s not even just that you all went on to have successful careers. Although, that is remarkable in and of itself. It’s the type of people. Look at how great a person you are. I know we were talking about this earlier. The heart and humanity and the work ethic and all of the things that you all have overcome and achieved and the way in which you did it and the family commitment and all of it, it’s remarkable. I do appreciate, by the way — this reminds me of the tiger mom book from a while ago, Confessions of a Tiger Mom. There are all these different parenting styles. From the parenting style, tragedy, heartache, everything else, even to put all that aside for two seconds and just talk about her parenting techniques, when she got rid of the TV and broke the cord and installed a pay phone in your house, this is no joke. She was determined to get you into Oxford. By the way, there was one line — I’m sorry, I’m all over the place because I’m so excited about all the stuff in this book. Let me see if I can find the passage. There’s one passage where every time she was concerned about behavior or anything, there was no punishment. She just drove you back to Oxford to see what you could have.

Zain: I would say that, just to backtrack a little bit, it was very, very for us after we got home to London after my dad’s funeral.

Zibby: I should say, I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped right into that. The tragedy that happened and all of the details surrounding it and the aftermath and all of it was so heartbreaking to read, so heartbreaking. It was so visual. I feel like I was in that room. I feel like I could see your little brother in the bed, who, by the way, I did not realize was going to become the actor nominated — I didn’t realize that whole thing at all until you reveal it in the book. I’m very sorry for all that you’ve been through and your mom’s been through and your whole family.

Zain: Oh, my gosh, Zibby, thank you for the kind words. It was really difficult after we got back from London because what basically happened is that my mom was unable to parent. She was in such shock. She was in, as I mentioned, just such a state of deep, deep emotional agony and pain and trauma that she would essentially lock herself in her bedroom for hours at a time. All we would hear as little kids was screaming and crying and screaming and crying on the other side of the door. We didn’t really have a mother or a father for quite a while, is what it felt like. My eldest brother, who was fourteen when my dad passed away — that’s a really difficult age anyway for a boy because you’re transitioning from boyhood to manhood. That is the time when you need a father figure. He got kicked out of school. He used to be a straight-A student. He got kicked out of school, started hanging out with the wrong crowd, was sort of consumed by the streets.

That was a bit of a wake-up call for my mom because after that, she realized, oh, my gosh, I need to get my family back on track. As an immigrant coming from Africa, the only reason why you moved to, or the main reason, I should say, why you moved to the United States or to the UK is so that your kids can have a better education, to give your kids a better life. To not just have her husband pass away in this horrific way, but to have her oldest son, who was a very, very bright young boy, get kicked out of school, that was a big wake-up call for my mom. My mother began — this is the meat of the book. She began to implement very clear structure and routine to keep us focused on schoolwork, to keep us focused on anything besides the empty chair at the dinner table and to keep my eldest brother away from the streets. The first thing that she did was a family book club.

Zibby: That’s right. I meant to talk about that first. I love the family book club. That was a genius idea.

Zain: The family book club, I was only five years old at the time, so it was really designed for my oldest brothers. She would basically give them texts or books to read, usually the classics, so we’re thinking Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling. They would have to discuss it at the dinner table every Friday night. When I got a little bit older, she asked my teacher for my school syllabus for the year. She would look down my school syllabus. This is when I was seven, eight years old. She would figure out what I was going to be learning in school in maybe a month or two months, and she would teach it to me ahead of time beforehand so that by the time I learned it in school, by the time the teachers taught it in school, I’d already mastered it. I already knew it inside out.

Zibby: And she was coming home from her job, fourteen hours a day on her feet at the pharmacy that she owned. To come home and do this with you for three hours at night, this is amazing.

Zain: It changed my life because even at the age of seven, I could understand for the first time that what you put into something is what you get out of it. By knowing everything that the teachers were teaching already because my mother secretly taught me ahead of time, it meant that the teachers started treating me a lot differently. I became this role model for my entire class. We weren’t graded at age seven, but it would be the equivalent of, basically, a straight-A student. Anytime there were awards to give out to the kids or whatever, my name would always come up as number one. It fueled my desire to go home and do that again and learn in advance again with my mom. One of the other things she did was what she refers to, we refer to as the eight-hour rule as we were coming up. She would make us divide our day into three equal parts. Obviously, there’s twenty-four hours in a day. She would make us divide it into three parts of eight hours each. She would say, right, eight hours to be spent sleeping, eight hours to be spent in school, and the last eight hours of your day should be spent working towards your dreams. Her whole philosophy was that, listen, everybody generally sleeps for eight hours. Everybody generally either is in school or at work for eight hours, obviously if they’re lucky enough to just have one job. The only thing that can ever set you apart in life, the only thing that can ever distinguish you from the next person is how you spend the last eight hours of your day. That, again, translated through high school for me. It really changed our work ethic. My mother, who was solely motivated in the early days by just keeping my oldest brother out of trouble, ended up with all of these amazing parenting philosophies that really changed our family’s life and allowed us to live up to our highest potential. Then we can get to the Oxford stuff.

Zibby: It’s really just a continuation of that. It’s how she modeled success and made everything attainable. She’s not like, try this, and maybe you’ll achieve this. She was like, you’re going to do this. I’m going to show you how. She gave you the whole road map and never really wavered even when there were setbacks, even with the school where the horrible girl planted the — oh, my gosh, that was terrible. Talk about that for a second. That was horrific. She pulled you out of the school. You just move on to the next. It’s not going to derail you.

Zain: My mom grew up in Nigeria. In Nigeria, everyone is Black. Skin color is not a thing. Nobody talks about race. Nobody talks about skin color. It’s just not even brought up. When she came to England and she moved to England in the 1970s, it was really difficult for her to experience racism. England in the 1970s, there were posters put up saying “Keep England white.” For somebody who had never understood the concept of race and skin color, that was really difficult because she’d grown up in a country where everyone was Black. Everybody was generally African. Race was just not something that anyone cared about, talked about, whatever. When we grew up, each of us, my siblings and I, did experience racism at different times. It was very hard for her to navigate or understand how to give us advice. She came up with a few strategies. As you point out, there was a point where I went to a school. It was a boarding school that I went to briefly. The kids basically — oh, my gosh, it’s so difficult to talk about now. One of the other girls, she had a money box that went missing. Up until this point, all the other kids were really nice to me. They were really nice. They knew that I was originally from Nigeria. They asked all sorts of questions about Nigeria. I was one of the few Black girls. I was kind of a curiosity.

When the money box went missing, things started to change for me very, very quickly. We had this one afternoon whereby the nuns at the school would take each child up to their dorm room to check their drawers for this missing money box while a nun looked on. You would watch while the nuns looked through your drawers looking for this missing money box. Their whole philosophy was that theft would not be tolerated at Saint Mary’s, which is perfectly understandable. We were doing our homework. One at a time, each student went up. They would come back down. Then another student would go up with the nuns. Their drawers would be searched. Then they would come back down to class. Eventually, it was my turn. I thought, great, I’ve done nothing wrong. They started looking through my drawers in front of me. I was like, blah, blah, blah. Then in the third or second drawer, they moved aside my clothes, and there was the money box. I said to the nuns, “Oh, my gosh.” I was only twelve years old. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t put that there.” They did not care. As far as they were concerned, I was a thief. I’d stolen this money box. I explained to them that, “No. You have to understand, somebody must have put that in my drawers. I promise you.” They did not care. From that moment onwards, I was completely shunned in this school. My mother was called. It was a whole thing. I was so isolated, so alone. My days would be spent — not having friends in school is one thing. Not having friends in a school where everybody stays the night, it’s really excruciating.

Eventually, after seeing me get shunned and ignored, the person who actually planted that money box on me had actually confessed to an older student who forced her to talk to the nuns about it. The nuns eventually — they didn’t really apologize to me. They told me, “Listen, we now know that it wasn’t you because the girl who planted it on you did come forward,” but it was too late. My mother already took me out of that school by that point. I was only there for literally one — I think Americans call it one semester. It’s a term. We call it in England, a term. It’s three months. It was the first time I really understood race. I lost my innocence a bit at that point. One of the things that my mother did — the book centers around lessons, parenting lessons. One of the things that she did when it came to dealing with race and some of the issues — she had no idea how to navigate that stuff, as I mentioned. One of the things she did was she would find — when we lost our confidence and we felt that — every minority that’s growing up in a society where they’re different, there’s all sorts of insecurities that come with that. There’s all sorts of feelings and inferiority that come with that.

What she did was she would find newspaper clippings of Black success stories. She would cut them out. Anytime she saw an article about a Black person, especially if they were West African, who had done something extraordinary with their lives, she would cut out the newspaper clippings, and she would plaster them to your walls. We would come home, and we would be bombarded with image after image of Black people, people who looked like us, who were just like us, especially if they were immigrants, who had done something extraordinary with their lives and who had overcome something and saw it. This was such an important lesson. There’s that saying that the only thing that can hold a person back in life is the perception they have of themselves. My mother literally changed the perception we had of ourselves through doing that. She also had this binder of Black success stories that she would look through.

This is one of my favorite lessons because regardless of what race you are — it doesn’t matter whether you’re Black, white, whether you’re Asian. It doesn’t matter. Every child has a tape that plays in their mind about what they can and can’t achieve in life. Every child has that. As a parent, it’s sometimes very difficult to figure out what your child’s tape is saying because it’s not as if their thoughts are printed on their forehead. You have no idea. Fortunately, as minorities, my mom kind of, sort of knew what the tape was saying. Her process was to undo that tape, to get me to play a different tape in my head. Just seeing all these people, all these, I call them in the book, uplifters — in my language, it translates as , which means those who set the standard. That was what my mother was looking for in these articles. It changed my belief in myself. It made me think, wow. Yes, I’m a minority. Yes, I might be one of the only Black girls in some of these situations, but I can still make it. I can still work hard. My mother convinced me the people in these articles were just like us. If we worked the way they worked, as hard as they did, we could have what they had. I remember specifically one afternoon, I came home from school, and my bedroom mirror was missing. My mother had replaced my bedroom mirror with articles of Black success stories. I asked her where it was. Her words were simply, she responded, “Less focus on how you look. More focus on what you can become.” That was huge for me.

Zibby: Amazing. She’s just amazing. It’s motivating and empowering and all the things. I know they do this — I had a tour, at one point, of a school for dyslexia that my stepmother is involved in. All throughout the halls are pictures of people who are dyslexic and all of the amazing things that they have achieved. You can take whatever it is you’re trying to overcome or that you feel like may hinder you, not for any fault of your own, but because of society, you can take anything and as long as you have the goals, as long as you can see it — it’s just amazing.

Zain: In order to overcome a belief, the human brain needs evidence. The brain is an evidence-seeking organ or whatever. If you’re going to change a belief about yourself, it’s not enough just to and wake up and change a belief. You have to see evidence. That is the way the brain works. Regardless of what it is, as you point out, whether it’s dyslexia, whatever it is, whether it’s a belief that based on how you look or what race you are, you’re not going to be able to achieve some things, whatever, once the brain sees evidence that that is not the case, that’s how the brain begins to undo those beliefs. I don’t know how on earth my mother knew that intuitively. I’m just going to cry thinking about my mother. All the things that she did, some of them were quite extreme. You brought up the Oxford thing, which is kind of nuts. Basically, my mom, like a lot of immigrants, believed that getting her children or her children going to a university like Oxford or Cambridge or the American equivalent, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or whatever, would be the ticket to a better life. I think a lot of immigrants have similar beliefs. In England, it is a classist society. It’s a system that is very much based on class. That sometimes means that it’s quite difficult when you’re born into a certain situation to be able to move up. It’s very rigid in that sense. There are only a handful of things that can help you move up in terms of your socioeconomic status. One of those things is going to a very, very, very good school, if you are an immigrant especially. My mother truly believed that, as a minority, me getting into those schools would change my life. I think she was onto something. I think she was right. I really do.

Basically, when I was thirteen, my mom would put me in the car, and she would take me on these trips to visit Oxford. As a thirteen-year-old, I had no idea what Oxford even was. I barely could pronounce it. I had no idea why it was relevant, why anyone cared about it. She just wanted me, even at that young age, to see and smell and experience those cobbled streets, the beautiful architecture. Again, it had the similar idea to plastering articles on the wall of Black success stories. The idea was just so that I could gradually start to believe that I could actually one day maybe see myself there. It became a mother-daughter tradition. Every, maybe, five, six months or so, we’d get in the car, and we would go and visit Oxford together, a mother-daughter tradition. When it came time to apply to Oxford, there were a few challenges. Number one, my teachers didn’t think that I had the grades to apply to a university like Oxford. My teachers thought, “Listen, your daughter –” This is what they said to my mom. “Your daughter is perfectly smart.” I was an A/B student. They said, “She doesn’t really have the sort of genius status needed to get into a place like Oxford. You have to be at another level.” They listed a few other universities and colleges that I should apply for. My mom, coming from Africa, had never heard of any of them. What is the University of Edinburgh? What are you talking about? She came home, and she told me. She said to me, “You know what? Your teachers don’t think you’re good enough to apply to Oxford, but I’m going to figure out a plan.” She paced her bedroom thinking, what can I do to guarantee that my daughter’s going to go to Oxford University? How can I make that happen?

She came into my room. She was like, “Oh, my god, I’ve got it. I’ve figured out a plan. I know exactly what to do to guarantee that you are going to go to Oxford University.” I sort of rolled my eyes like, what, Mom? She basically decided that she was going to ban me from watching any television whatsoever until I had an actual Oxford acceptance letter in hand. Of course, I thought she was nuts. She was very determined because she felt as though, going back to the eight-hour rule, how a person spends their spare time is critical in terms of what they end up becoming, what they end up doing with their lives. Of course, like any teenager, I rebelled. I didn’t listen. Eventually, without television, I began to spend all my time on the phone. I would call boys. If you can’t watch TV, what else is there to do? This is the year 2000 or 1999 or whatever. I would call boys, call all my friends on the phone. Then she realized that I was basically replacing one distraction for another. She said, “I’m going to come up with a plan for that too.” One day, she came home. It was a Sunday. She came home with what you would call a residential pay phone. I don’t know if they exist in America. In England, you can get these things called residential pay phones. They look like normal phones, but they have a slot on one side for coins. You can find them in doctors’ offices. They’re not expensive. She brought home, literally, a pay phone. Then she said to me, “You can use the phone all you want, but you’re going to have to pay for it yourself.”

She completely eliminated all distractions and created an environment whereby I had nothing else to do but study. Of course, I rebelled. Initially, I would do anything but study. I’d come home from school. I’d go for a walk. I would stare out the window, talk to my sister. Eventually, I actually did begin to study. I began to read around my subjects and open books and read and etc. My grades began to improve, so much so that my French teacher stopped my mom to ask about my sudden surge in grades. My mom explained it was just about eliminating distractions. My French teacher asked my mother about what to do with her own children, asked my mother for advice, which I find so funny. Obviously, it worked out for me. I got into Oxford. The fact is, I didn’t get in because I’m a genius. I didn’t get into Oxford because I’m the smartest girl on the planet. I didn’t get in because I was legacy or anything like that. I got in because my mother created an environment where I literally had nothing else to do but study. That was it. It was for two years. Yes, it does sound extreme. As a Black girl, especially as an immigrant coming from Africa — I was born in London, but my family’s from Nigeria. Going to a place like Oxford, especially if you haven’t grown up with money, it does change your life. It really, really, really changed my entire life. When I got that acceptance letter, I remember crying to my mother thanking her because even as a teenager — I was only eighteen. I could literally see that my mother’s decision to eliminate distractions had completely changed the trajectory of my entire future. I was like, thank you so much. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it was just such a small price to pay for living the life that I have now. I’m very lucky to be at CNN.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You write about that too. I feel like I could talk to you for a hundred hours. The podcast is not long. I want to go through every part of your life that you write about and discuss it with you and be like, wait, tell me about this. We’ll have to do this in person or something. You also really track how you become a CNN anchor. Also, I loved how you prepared. You have this instinct now. You know you need to be ready for things when they fall into your lap, which, of course, they never do. You’re manifesting all of this stuff. Then you’re ready. I’m referring to how you prepared for this interview. The man training you was like, “You’re not going to be an anchor. No one’s going to ask you to audition for this.” You’re like, “I’m going to be ready. I’m going to be ready no matter what happens.” Then of course, it happens. You were ready. You knock it out of the park. Now look at you. It’s amazing. It’s just the most inspirational story.

Zain: Basically, my mother teaching me to prepare in advance, like when she went through my syllabus when I was seven years old and she looked at what I was going to be learning and she taught me ahead of time so that by the time it came up in school, I already knew, that, I thought was genius. I applied that to my adult life as well. When I got hired at CNN as a correspondent — I’m a preparation queen, so there was lots of preparing for that. I decided that my mother’s lessons about preparing in advance had worked wonders for me. I wondered whether or not it could even help me when it came to eventually becoming an anchor, which was a dream of mine. Even though I’d only been at CNN for — it was less than a year, several months, but less than a year. I decided that I wanted to start preparing to anchor even though there were no anchor positions open. Once you get an anchor position at CNN, you generally don’t leave. It’s such a great job. Even though no one had asked me to anchor, I decided to find the talent coach. CNN employs these talent coaches full time. I went to one of them. I said, “Listen, I would like you to train me to be an anchor.” He looked at me weirdly. He was like, “You haven’t been in the company that long. Has anyone asked you to anchor?” I said, “No.” He said, “Why do you want to be trained? There aren’t even anchor positions available.” I said, “I want to be trained just in case. Just in case one day, an anchor position opens up, I just want to be ready.”

I’m a firm believer that the issue isn’t whether or not your opportunities come. The issue is whether you’re ready when your opportunity comes. That’s the big thing. He began to train me several times a week after work. We would sit in the studio. We would just practice. He would make me study some of the domestic anchors, some of whom, of course, household names. I would look through the scripts. I would study how they asked questions and how to do breaking news and all of that. Then eventually several months later, I found out that CNN International was looking for anchors. I threw my hat in the ring. Even though they wanted me to audition or have a screen test in a few weeks or whatever from the time that I found out — they were sort of nervous because, obviously, I didn’t have that much time to prepare. What they didn’t know is that I’d been preparing for much of that year. Just by being ready and having prepared all those months with that talent coach, when the opportunity arose and when there was an anchor position available at CNN International, I got it because I was ready. I had prepared. opened up.

Zibby: Zain, your book, it’s so amazing. We’ve only scratched the surface on even more amazing, inspiring tips, tricks, stories, all the Nigerian history. I learned so much I’m embarrassed I didn’t even know about. I am such a huge fan of this book. I love that I got to know you through this book. Here we are now. It’s just amazing. Everybody has to read Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable. I can’t wait to see you in person in two weeks.

Zain: Yes, I will see you. Zibby, thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you. There was so much more to discuss.

Zain: interview. Loved your book too. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you.



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