What is Mohsin Hamid’s message about identity in The Reluctant Fundamentalist?

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Mohsin Hamid writes his character, Changez, as someone who is trying to gain a sort of American identity from key moments of assimilation. He assimilates by graduating with a higher education degree from an ivy league university and becomes recognized in an elite white collar job. Although he has attempts...

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Mohsin Hamid writes his character, Changez, as someone who is trying to gain a sort of American identity from key moments of assimilation. He assimilates by graduating with a higher education degree from an ivy league university and becomes recognized in an elite white collar job. Although he has attempts to pursue this American identity, he struggles with the contradictions of being American and having his roots as Pakistani. Ultimately, he recognizes his inward transformation and moves back to Lahore, where he teaches at a university.

A noteworthy statement made by Changez is when he describes janissaries of the Ottoman empire. He believes he was similar in his "servitude" to the New York firm during a time when the U.S. was invading a country with a kinship to him. This explains a deep relationship with homeland and identity. Changez's disillusionment with America and his return to Pakistan places his belief in identity in the land and culture one comes from. He returns to teach at a university and cautions his students against the American dream, which he learns is not attainable for people of Arab descent. He instead refocuses his energy on his Pakistani identity and commits himself to his own people and culture.

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Hamid's message about identity seems to be that it is fluid; and it must be when one has so many facets to one's life. Changez's very name seems to symbolize how changeable identity is, necessarily and by nature. His identity, like everyone's, is made up of so many components: his nationality, faith, dreams and goals, education, career choices, personal relationships, immigrant status, and so on. As his nationality and faith become suspect in a post-9/11 America, his relationship with both changes. His dreams and ambitions change once he realizes what implications achieving them will have. This changes the view he once took on his Ivy League education as well as the path he wants to follow in his professional life. His personal relationship with both Erica and his family change his perception of himself and of America. When one's identity is comprised of myriad components—and each of those can be affected by a plethora of other people, current events, travel, or one's own developing maturity and understanding—it is impossible to pin one's entire identity down to one, or even two or three, things or to assume that, once established, one's identity will remain static and unchanging.

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In a word, Hamid seems to be saying that identity in the modern setting is "difficult."  The one element throughout Changez's narrative is that his formulation of identity is never easy.  Identity is a concept whose only consistency seems to be its pain and frustration.  Changez's arrival into America is one in which he wishes to embrace the openness and seemingly lack of limitation in America, yet he does so understanding that he is not fully a part of it.  Identity with Erica is a challenge because as much as they both might love one another, he is not Chris, and must address this.  At one point, in a complete and bizarre reenactment of identity, he tells her to pretend to be Chris, something that does not sit well with him at the time or after it.  In Changez's work, his identity is crushed under the weight of what he does, the fact that he is good at it, and eventually the toll it takes on others and, eventually, on himself.  To a great extent, Changez's return to Pakistan and his embrace of fundamentalism is something where there is not a complete settlement in his identity.  He is shown to be paranoid or hyper aware of things, unable to discern what his mind constructs and what reality offers.  The ending is one in which the questions abound for both he and the reader.  There is little to indicate that Changez is settled in his identity even at the end of the novel where repudiation of America has not fully translated into a sense of contentment. It is here where Hamid makes some of his strongest contentions that identity in the modern setting is challenging and difficult, at best.

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