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Hena J. Bryan: A Bookish Life

Hena J. Bryan: A Bookish Life

“Literature helped me find myself. Somewhere. If not in the world, then just somewhere in literature.” Hena. A self-proclaimed, proud Bookish Babe, a style icon and a beauty enthusiast. Her love of literature, reading and storytelling has seen her through all the phases of her life, both joyous and complex. As a black woman, born in Jamaica and raised in Birmingham: with every book she reviews, and every move she makes in the literature space – both online and in real life – Hena is debunking the notion that deep love of all things literature and publishing are reserved for the few. 

Early life

It is no secret that delving into a piece of great fiction is a sure way to escapism. Hena explains “I was quite quiet when I was younger, and I did like to read. Those are the two things that I took into adult life… I feel I started to find myself during my late teens when I actually started reading, so I feel like I am still growing into the person I am going to be. My younger self wouldn’t believe that this is who she would end up being!”

On her family, Hena lets us into her upbringing; growing up in a single-parent household where much of the child-rearing came from her father. She fondly recounts memories of the boldness and character of her household, rooted in Caribbean culture and filled with stories typical of such settings.

“Coming from a large family I felt like because I was quiet I guess I was easily consumed by everyone else who had really big personalities. It wasn’t until I stepped aside, went to university, moved to London and said I wanted to establish my own life, and I’m still figuring out who I am.” 

Sometimes, the most cherished part of our lives was introduced to us through happenstance. This was true for Hena with her introduction to the world of writing and literature. She told us; “I actually started reading when I was around 13/14 which is actually quite late… It wasn’t one of those things that my dad forced me to read, it just happened – a friend at school gave me a book and I ended up reading it through the night. I just used to go to the library and pick up a book even if I didn’t know what it would be about, even if I thought it would be dreadful.” 

A life widely read

“My favourite thing about literature helps me to learn a lot about myself and I guess a lot about people. I just really consider myself to be quite an empath so I feel like reading literature has enabled that and has allowed me to be quite emotionally intelligent. I just love how literature can transform you from one place to another and even though I’m more of a fiction reader I feel like I’ve learnt so much about history, politics and geography about so much simply due to reading about a time that someone wrote, and I love that for me. I think one thing I love about literature is that it doesn’t require you to talk too much. Obviously, people see me talking about literature but aside from that, I don’t think I really talk a lot; talking about literature is one of my favourite things to do.”

“[I] stumbled into literature… I did idolise a lot of the classics, but now it feels like a world away because I don’t really read much of the classic literature anymore. I’m more reading black writers from Africa and the Caribbean, from the diaspora.” And obviously, we had to ask her what her favourite book was! When asked, she said ” I’ve been a massive fan of Emily Bronte for a long time, I still think Wuthering Heights is my favourite classic. I’m a massive fan of John Ford who is a playwright – almost like a Shakespeare adjacent – but riskier in the things he wrote about. I’m a massive fan of Shakespeare’s King Lear. I read a lot of Feminist literature when I was younger, and I read a lot of post-colonial writers such as George Orwell.” Some more of her author hall-of-Famers are Abi Dare, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Richard Wright, Sam Selvon Julia Quinn and Delia Owens.

“A myth about reading or being widely read is that you need to be this super serious person who over-intellectualises everything. After starting youtube and starting my journey about being more public obviously people know me from there when they see me they think all I want to do is talk about books – which I love to do – but I’m actually a very chilled and normal person. If I don’t have to talk about books and use big words I won’t – I love to laugh, and I love being stupid. And I think that’s what I want people to know; you can be anyone or anything in this world and still love reading. And you don’t have to read what everyone else is reading too. The ‘bookfluencer’ world can be pretentious, but I really don’t care. I read and review and continue to be who I am.”

Life in publishing and finding her niche

We asked Hena about the state of publishing in the UK right now, and the representation that it has, and this is what she had to say; “as someone who has worked in corporate publishing, and left, I know that the representation was far from the best. I don’t even want to say you need to have tough skin to be in white publishing, but I’d say leave white publishing alone altogether.”

“I struggled to figure out where I fit in, but I realised if I didn’t it’s not the worst thing in the world. When I came onto social media I felt I was lumped in with the beauty girls but you’ll never get a beauty reel from me. I figured out my niche by just being myself.”

All things beauty and fashion

Who is your beauty inspiration?

“I would say Rihanna is my beauty inspiration, but I also love couture stuff. It’s very clean – it’s very high-end. I want to say Melissa’s Wardrobe as well. I think I’m definitely just finding myself in terms of who my beauty and fashion inspirations are. I like to dress quite cleanly.”

What are your favourite things to listen to while you’re doing your beauty regimen?

“I like to listen to gospel music. Whenever I do my skincare or beauty regimen I’m just listening to gospel music and praying for a miracle! I love listening to gospel and if not gospel, I have something in the background which would most likely be a TV show or something.”

What are some of your favourite makeup products of all time and why?”

“I have been using a lot of KEM products recently! It’s still in my rotation since uni- I still use Sugarbeam! I love brown sugar lip gloss. I love Mali blush, it was the first time I used blush. I also love Charlotte Tillbury setting spray. I’ve also been using the Soft-Set powders!”

What are some of your favourite makeup hacks?

“I love putting my shimmer highlight on the tip of my nose, I think it looks so gorgeous. I also love a bright undereye and I love how the girls are doing it. I also I’m also enjoying putting blush on my nose.”

“How would you describe your personal style?

“I love clean [and] classy looks… When it comes to hair and makeup and dressing up I like my face to be the main event. I need my hair and makeup and lashes to look right, and then I’ll have a simple outfit with a nice bag. I think that’s me. I love heels looks, too.”

“What is a wardrobe staple for you?

“I love a nice bag, I am a bag collector. As long as I can have a nice bag I’ll do a jean and a top and I’m good to go. I do like boots too, like those Hanifa boots, those are to die for.”

“I have to be quite intentional with how I live my life, simply just to keep myself centred. I exercise and I think that is something that has helped me with my anxiety quite a lot. Obviously, there are physical benefits but I just love what it does for the mind too. I also attend therapy twice a week to, you know, talk about how I’m feeling. I journal quite a lot as well; I’ve been journaling since I was 17 and have had a journal every year since then. And, I read! Again, I feel reading does a lot for me. it takes me out of myself, it takes me elsewhere and it calms my mind down when it’s racing. Whilst I definitely want to build my platform I think spending less time on social media and spending more time in my real life is a big help too.

Chatting with Hena took us on a beautiful journey depicting self-discovery through the lens of storytelling and literature. Her courage and sharp convictions in how she navigates through life – both internally and externally – as well as how she advocates for herself are deeply inspiring on the worst of days. We’re so proud of all Hena has achieved so far and we can’t wait to see everything she gets up to in the near future and beyond! Follow Hena on Instagram here: @henajbrayan

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