What is personal identity? It is what makes the individual unique. It is an individual’s perception of “self”, which can include gender roles, sexuality, and racial identity. The struggle to discover identity and family heritage is a major theme in The Bastard of Istanbul. Both Armanoush and Asya yearn to feel confident in their identities – both culturally and as a human being.
Armanoush desires to know more about her family’s history and what it means to be an Armenian-American. She talks about this in the online chatroom, “I need to find my identity. . . Grandma always talks about this gorgeous house in Istanbul. I’ll go and see it with my own eyes . . . The Janissary’s Paradox will haunt me unless I do something to discover my past (117).” The Janissary’s Paradox Armanoush speaks of is the duality of her nationality. She is both American and Armenian, but doesn’t know what it means to be Armenian. The Tchakhmakhchian family in America is cut off from other Armenian families in Turkey and has become very bitter towards the Turks as a result. They do not know what the relationship between the Armenians and Turks is like in Turkey and have only their own prejudices that have been passed down in the family. Armanoush is influenced by these opinions and yearns to discover the childhood place of her grandmother, who lived in Turkey. She wishes to learn more about her past in order to establish herself in the present, “For me to be able to become an Armenian American the way you guys are, I need to find my Armenianness first (119).” Can we be certain and sure of who we are if we don’t know our roots – where we came from and who our ancestors are?
Asya first learned that she was a bastard as a young girl and the word loomed over her, defining her and making her different in the eyes of her peers. That title has separated her from other children and looked down on.
“By the time Asya Kazanci reached seventeen she had further comprehended that she no more belonged to Istanbul than did the ROAD UNDER CONSTRUCTION or BUILDING UNDER RESTORATION signs temporarily put up by the municipality (62).”
Asya’s mother, Zeliha, refused to tell Asya her biological father for most of the novel. The reader later found out that Asya’s father was in fact the brother of Zeliha. Perhaps Zeliha didn’t want to tell Asya the truth of her birth because she thought that the knowledge would haunt Asya and damage her psyche. We often find our “niche” by observing our parents and either following in their footsteps or taking a divergent path.
“But in all honesty, someone like me can never be past-oriented . . . Not because I find my past poignant or that I don’t care. It’s because I don’t know anything about it. I think it’s better to have the knowledge of past events than not to know anything at all (180).”
Here Asya shows here a hidden yearning to learn the truth about her past. Asya wants to know who her father is because she believes that the knowledge will fill that missing piece that is holding her back. Without that missing piece, she has become bitter and confrontational, much like her mother Zeliha.
Perhaps after discovering who her father is, Asya can finally begin to heal and move on in her life. Armanoush came to learn more about her grandmother, but ended up learning about the Turks themselves and, ultimately, about what it means to be Armenian in the midst of other cultures.