“It’s so essential that we take charge of our own reinvention and ensure our personal brands reflect, to the outside world, the reality of our lives.” —Dorie Clark, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future The idea of the personal brand has more or less become gospel in the precarious gig economy that has defined work after the Great Recession. Popularized by the business self-help writer Tom Peters in the late ’90s, the personal brand has truly come of age in the here and now, where people tend not to be categorized either as employed or unemployed but instead as perpetually job seeking, job hopping, and job dreaming. It’s a state of flux. Flux. It’s a fitting word to describe this new normal. It’s also a word that’s used in metal smelting. Put briefly, a flux helps remove chemical impurities from a metal. Likewise, the personal brand removes unwanted eccentricities and excesses from the person, leaving an individual whose “most important job,” as Peters put it, “is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” The idea of the personal brand is simple: Corporations (and people) market themselves by constructing a narrative. For example, despite all evidence to the contrary, Harley Davidson employees still think Donald Trump is a good businessman. Even with his job at possible risk from Trump’s tariffs, one worker commented, “He wouldn’t do it unless it needed to be done, he’s a very smart businessman.” Why is Trump a smart businessman? Because the brand story says so. Lather, rinse, repeat: Instagram influencers, startup founders, every single LinkedIn profile. Sayaka Murata’s brilliant Convenience Store Woman can be read as a meditation on the world of personal branding. The book is Murata’s first to be translated into English (she’s written 10 novels). It has been seen as a Gothic romance between a “misfit and a store” and as a fictionalized account of how young people in Japan are increasingly giving up on sex, to name just two readings. It’s a sign of excellent literature to be able to effortlessly hold up multiple interpretations at once. Murata’s book is no exception: It’s all of these things while also rendering an artful grotesque of modern personal branding. Murata’s book is told from the perspective of Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old woman who, by the book’s start, has been working in a Smile Mart convenience store for 18 years. As Keiko describes it, “I’m now thirty-six years old, and the convenience-store-worker-me is eighteen.” That voice, with the flattened tone of a test of the emergency broadcast system, is a hallmark of the book. Keiko has never fit in and struggles to understand the nuances of the world around her. As a child, she was confused as to why her mother was aghast when she picked up a dead bird in a park and, instead of feeling any sense of grief at its death, excitedly declared that they should grill it for yakitori. “The normal world has no room for exceptions,” she later concludes. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.” To prevent her own disposal, she finds it easier to create a persona by mimicking others, finding that she was “formed almost completely of the people around [her].” The only time she seems to truly relate to another person is when she sees herself in him: “He really was just like me, uttering words that sounded human when really he wasn’t saying anything at all.” But most importantly to the arc of the book, she makes herself anew through her employment. She gets her first (and only) job at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart while in college and begins to live her life for that job. On one of her first days, she turns around to yell “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome!) to her first customer, and she feels a connection to the world around her that she had never felt before. “I’ve been reborn,” she thinks to herself. “I actually became a normal cog in society.” Not only is she reborn; she’s rebranded as well. Forbes recently published a list of “5 Ways to Build a Powerful Personal Brand.” It’s the type of self-help article that routinely shows up across the internet. The list included tips such as “Understand your value.” Keiko accepts that she’s a “well-functioning part of the store” that is “second to none in terms of never being late or taking days off.” The article goes on to argue that it’s important to “understand how much your value is worth.” Keiko finds that her “hourly pay covered the basic requirement to condition [her] body so it was fit to take to work.” The connections can go on. This is perhaps Murata at her most subversive. Labor in the first-world archipelago has more or less bifurcated into either precarious office work or precarious service work. While the digital marketer can embark on a personal branding journey, what is left for the cashier or barista in an age of zero-hour contracts and gig work? The answer comes from another aspect of branding: the store brand. Creating a personal brand usually involves taking inspiration from the gleaming rows of name brands. It’s worth remembering that in every store, alongside the bottles of Tylenol or rolls of Charmin, there are the cheaper equivalents that forsake the individuality of brand stories for the homogeneity of the national store. These are the store brands. Keiko does this effortlessly. She forsakes the idiosyncrasy of the personal brand for the ready-made brand of the store. She internalizes this to an astonishing degree. Realizing that she only eats meals from Smile Mart, she reflects, “When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.” Much of the latter half of the book does not concern itself with this kind of store-brand personal branding. Instead it revolves around her interactions with Shiraha, an incel-like character who is ultimately fired from Smile Mart for being a terrible employee. He later moves into Keiko’s squalid apartment and the two pretend to have a relationship to placate their respective friends and family. He sits in the bathtub with the futon, fiddling away on his cell phone. She treats him like a pet. But the store is always there, looming over Keiko’s consciousness. “More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker,” she realizes. “Even if that means I’m abnormal and can’t make a living and drop down dead, I can’t escape that fact. My very cells exist for the convenience store.” This is personal branding for the precariat. A good worker shows up without taking a break, without missing a beat, without a sense of self. The worker is the brand. The brand is the store.
By the end of my first semester of a PhD in history, I was sure I was going to drop out. I felt out of place, as if I were a student who, for weeks, sat in on the wrong class and decided to play along, the inertia of a decision keeping me from finding the right place. I was—and am—a fiction writer with a deep and abiding interest in history, but I wasn’t sure if that was enough to keep me in a PhD program. I began graduate school as a writer. It was 2011 and I had published my first essay in The Awl and had written 50 pages of a novel. When I think about my decision to start a PhD in history, I’m reminded of the essays in MFA vs NYC. It turns out that PhD in NYC was a third option. It’s not a common path, but not unheard of either. Prior to publishing Open City, Teju Cole was in the art history program at my university. Why did I choose to enter graduate school in history? I’m still not sure. It was a fully-funded program, which meant that I was paid to spend my time in beautiful libraries and to travel for research. I suppose those reasons were as good as any. Truthfully, a PhD can be a wonderful place for writing a novel. Marilynne Robinson found pieces of what would become Housekeeping while in graduate school at the University of Washington. She later wrote that lonesomeness is at the heart of creation: it focuses the mind and provides needed silence. I can now see that my training as a historian gave me the space to write what history could never mention. My lonesome moments spent in libraries and archives gave me a chance to find the quiet lives of the everyday. Nevertheless, it felt daunting to balance graduate school with a novel. Rather than balance both, I thought it might be easier to flee one for the other. In such a state, I sent cold emails to a few writers who had entered PhD programs and asked them whether I should stay or go. The best advice was given to me by Siddhartha Deb. He told me that a PhD offered the chance to “read things no one else is reading, writing that will be far more interesting than what you could read on your own.” He was right. My graduate work took me from Fiji to Trinidad, where I read about the lives and stories of indentured Indians, those whose restless toil took them across dark waters to new lives of promise and unimaginable despair. It was in this experience of traveling alone, of spending long hours in silence, where my writing began to gain focus. I threw out the first hundred pages of the novel that I started before I entered my PhD program. I read and travelled some more and I threw out another 225 pages of a second novel. Beyond access to manuscripts and archives, graduate school had given me a gift: the time to write (and revise). Some find this baffling. How could a PhD in history provide time to write a novel? I, like most graduate students, learned how to develop a Cistercian sensibility. Life was defined by work only I could schedule—reading, researching, and writing—and the prayers to get it all done. I took a little bit of that self-discipline and found that I usually had two or three hours to write in the morning (right after waking, when my thoughts, uninterrupted by distractions, were still protected by the hazy cocoon of sleep). It also helped that if I did not write, my mood was soured for the rest of the day. Graduate school gave me the time to write, but it never told me how to write. Flannery O’Connor reminded me that fiction begins with what is experienced. As she put it, “The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.” It’s advice that should always be well-taken. This exhortation to remain faithful to a visible world could have lead me to a worn conclusion: write what I knew. What one knows is filled with the kind of sensate memories that can, at times, make for good fiction. But for someone with a background in academic research, this idea was horrifying. If I were to write a history from what I knew, my works would be incredibly short and unimaginably boring. For someone who had an abiding interest in the world, writing from what I knew was not an option. I needed a bit of faith; I needed to take a flying leap into the unknown world just beyond my vision. What I needed was more research. Thankfully, graduate school had taught me the ins and outs of that. [millions_ad] The resulting novel trilogy is an arc of grief and solitude. These books quietly observe lives as they’re overturned by global calamity and strife in the mid-1980s. My characters were people who lived lives radically different than my own: a would-be botanist in a fictional South Pacific nation crumbling around her; an immigrant doing graduate work in mathematics in the American Midwest, his daily life brought to a halt by the tragedy of terrorism. Writing their stories meant building up their moral and physical worlds, piece by piece. Part of this process was deeply entrenched in the act of writing. I had to sit, day in and day out, finding the characters on the page. These were (and are) lonesome moments of focus, where my only company was the soft sleeping breath of a housecat curled up in an adjacent room. I once sat alone at my kitchen table talking under my breath as I interviewed one of my characters and learning all she could tell, as if she held a cup of tea in a realm just beyond the dimness of my sight. Characters like hers must always inhabit a place in the world. To build that required me to do what my academic training had primed me to do. I trawled JSTOR, wandered through library stacks counting on Library of Congress cataloging to introduce me to new and related books, and I wrote it all down in pages upon pages of notes: paper tucked into manila folders, Word documents, and scribbles in the margins. These tasks now come easy to me. It’s because of my research background that I no longer fear going zero to 60, 80, 100 on any topic. It has erased all trepidation and belief that I cannot, replaced simply with a drive to do. What was Delhi like in the 1980s? Find and annotate a travelogue. How does a botanist think? Find a memoir and take notes at every turn. What baseball game would have been broadcast in a no-name bar in San Francisco in mid-August 1985 at 5:00 in the evening? Check the newspaper archives for a recap. But my training as a historian was not that of a forager. My primary task has never been to find and collect facts from the forest floor. I first encountered Joan Scott’s masterful “The Evidence of Experience” as an undergraduate, but came to read it again and again in graduate school. It was in that essay where she deftly made the case for historians to historicize experience itself and to make clear that reality is not an “unmediated relationship between words and things.” Experience and reality are subject to context and specificity. The visible is not an absolute. E.M. Forster thought of the historian and the novelist as two separate creatures. It was a given that “every British schoolboy knew” that “the historian records whereas the novelist must create.” This distinction doesn’t quite hold up under scrutiny—the historian’s and writer’s craft can be one and the same. The experiences I collected in the notes and margins of research were far from a neatly-packaged bit of history. If taken as a transparent recollection of time and space, my research for fiction would have been a pastiche: unfiltered experiences taken from one place and shoved haphazardly into the minds of my characters. I had to disaggregate every strand of research; make sense of their barest essentials; recreate them into sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of specific characters on specific pages; get it fast; and get it right. Only then could the visible be rendered the highest kind of justice in fiction. Only then could a world be created. In the end, the threads of research can only be knit into fiction by a hand made deft by habits of mind. This task can take days, weeks, and even years. I miss that about graduate school. The endless days. Looking back on my six years, I see an extended exercise in finding my characters in the world. They were always there: in archives, upon street corners in Suva and Port of Spain, tucked into articles in obscure journals that no one else read. I’m not sure if I can recommend the process to anyone—I believe that there are faster ways to gather a story—but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I left academia after I finished my PhD. The hours I have in the morning to write are fewer. It doesn’t matter. As any researcher knows, there is always another book, always another article, always another piece of information yet to be considered. But there comes a moment when the gears of research must cease to turn and the machine must come to a grinding halt. In the silence that follows, all that’s left is to write, not only with competence, but with vision as clear as water and as bright as day. This, as far as I know, is something rarely, if ever, found in research. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.