Transforming Moments is a story written by Gcina Mhlophe, a South African writer, activist and storyteller. It is a short story told in first-person narrative. It centers around an unnamed narrator- a seventeen-year-old girl in high school- and her journey to self-love, confidence and finding her identity. The main themes of Transforming Moments are insecurity, social isolation, growth, self-love, confidence and identity.
Gcina Mhlophe is one of the few famous women storytellers in an area dominated by males, an aspect she mentions in Transforming Moments.
Transforming Moments | Summary
The story begins with the narrator introducing herself as a seventeen-year-old high school student who is battling insecurity about here self-image. She is at the top of the class, liked and praised by all teachers, but it does not do much for her confidence. The reason being, she thinks she is ugly- with hard-to-manage hair, clothes which are not as nice as the others’, knobby knees, and big feet. And to make matters worse, she sits in the front of the class. The narrator also mentions that their school is one of the biggest, and had a very good choir. Specifically, there was a girl named Bulelwa who had a lovely voice, and would stand by the narrator when other girls made fun of her for her lack of interest in boys. They say nobody would want to go out with her, anyway, as she does not even try to look good.
The narrator does remember a good-looking boy who plays rugby and still does not have a girlfriend. She does not know much about him, though, as she never goes to the sports field- she would rather read books. She loves reading anything she can find, to the point where she feels like it keeps her alive. The boys in her class don’t like her much unless they need help with their homework. In the girls’ dormitory, too, her bed is the furthest from the Matron’s. So whenever the other girls are unprepared for an upcoming test, she teaches them the lesson disguised by a cough when the lights are out.
One day, everything changes- the good-looking boy who plays rugby tells the narrator he loves her and asks her to be his girlfriend. She is shocked and confused- why would he ask her? The other girls have already turned their nose up at her, for they think he can do far better. She continuously rejects him, because she thinks she is too ugly for him to truly want. In the end, though, she decides to cause a stir among the school, and accepts him. As expected, there is an uproar, but she and the boy end up becoming quite good friends. She carries on with her life, studying well, especially to please her sister who is paying for her education.
The narrator had been kicked off the school choir because her voice is too deep, and hence she decides she is not a good singer. But she thinks the church minister likes her, for he insists that it is resonant, and encourages her to join the church choir instead. One day, the minister calls for her and tells her he is going to visit his family over the weekend, and she is to come with him. She is spellbound as she packs her things, excited at the prospect. Others follow her around out of curiosity, too proud to actually ask what is going on, and she decides not to tell them unless she is directly asked. Finally a girl did, though, and the narrator tells them that Father Fikeni has invited her to spend the weekend with his family.
The narrator sits in the back, while the minister and his wife sit in the front. She thinks Mrs. Fikeni is really beautiful. The narrator is not treated as a special guest, but like a member of the family. She spends time with the minister’s wife, watching her knit, and then is told by the minister that they had to go, much to her confusion. The destination is a meeting held at the nearby village. People were talking and discussing, and the narrator is not particularly interested until a tall man stands up- he commands the attention of everyone in the room. He is a praise poet, and the narrator is amazed by his speech. She is hardly able to applaud after it’s over, because her mind is in a faraway place- she is imagining herself to grow up and become a praise poet, as well.
After that, the praise poet comes down to meet Father Fikeni, and the narrator is introduced to him as an excellent student. It is an unforgettable experience for the narrator, and she is inspired. The first time she writes her own poem, it is a Monday. She is pleased with it, and loves the way it sounds when she reads it out- for the first time, she loves the sound of her voice. It is that moment that she truly loves herself. As she stands up to stretch, she feels a boundless joy flood through her body. She feels happy and good about herself. She has never heard of a woman praise poet, but she is sure she can be the first one, and she knows Father Fikeni would agree. She is thoroughly excited to read her first poem to him, and when a red rooster across loudly flaps its wings and squawks, she knows exactly what it’s saying- it’s agreeing with her, too.
Transforming Moments | Analysis
The story is narrated entirely in the past tense, giving the readers the impression that the narrator is recounting her experience, remembering all the incidents that brought her to the present. The title is apt, for this story follows the narrator through defining moments in her life. Whether they built her confidence or broke it, we can see that each memory she recalls had an effect on her and built her to where she is today. We may even wonder if this is borne from the experiences of Mhlophe herself, because of the authenticity and relatability with which the words are written.
The use of past tense is also important because it maintains the connection between the incidents. As the title says, the narrator talks about specific moments- often one which leads to another. Hence, we may foreshadow the upcoming incidents based on important details in the beginning of the story. This awareness gives the readers a better grasp on the main themes of the story and the personality of the narrator. It is also to be pointed out that Transforming Moments is rich in narration and description as opposed to dialogue. Mhlophe focuses on the narrator’s inner thoughts and feelings about the past events, and the narration of the event itself. This is another aspect that draws us closer to the character- we see every interaction and incident from purely her memory and perspective, which gives us a better understanding of her as a person. The story has heavy emotionality, and the vivid imagery and vocabulary stirs up the feelings in the readers as well.
From the very beginning, we see that the narrator is low on self-esteem- it starts with a lack of confidence about her looks. From the ease with which the words flow and the lack of elaboration or explanation as to why she feels this way about her looks, the readers may notice that she puts herself down almost naturally- as though she is used to doing so. This would mean the feeling has been long-term, and the lack of confidence has morphed into insecurity, which stems far deeper. Her low self-esteem about her appearance goes beyond what others think of her- she believes it herself. This can be seen with her intense statement of “I hated myself.” Mhlophe employs imagery in the description of the narrator’s hair- “dry grass.” There is also a hint at the narrator’s financial status at the mention of her clothes being “not as good as the others’.”
When the narrator talks about her school, she specifies their prowess in choir. This is a hint that it will play a larger role later in the story. Further, her admiration of Bulelwa’s voice is a foreshadowing- the narrator later mentions that she doesn’t think her own voice is good for singing. The narrator then talks about how the girls in her dormitory make fun of her for not being interested in boys, and saying “she doesn’t even try to look good.” Here we see the theme of social isolation– she is often alone and excluded, even being the target of her classmates’ words. We may also assume that her insecurity about her appearance comes from others’ comments- it has diminished her ability to think for herself confidently, and her view of herself is swayed by those around her.
We see this once again when a boy from Port Elizabeth proposed his love to her. She found the idea ridiculous, not because she didn’t like him- quite the contrary, she found him good looking- but because she didn’t believe he could like her. At the time, the students made comments that he was “too good for her,” which may have contributed to her rejecting him multiple times. The repeated thought that she is too ugly for him to like is an example of her view of herself being moulded by the rude comments of others. And this, in turn, affects the decisions in her life and becomes an obstacle in the path of her happiness. Her insecurity, stemming from the judgement of her surroundings, is stopping her from accepting someone’s genuine proposal. It is after several rejections that we see the narrator’s first step of growth as a character. She decides to cause a stir and accept the boy’s proposal- it’s the first time that she explores her own independence and steps out of the boundaries set by others. It proves to be fruitful, as she and the boys become friends.
We once again notice a mention of the narrator’s financial status- her sister is paying for her education, which spurs her to work hard. We also see the re-entry of the topic of choir. The narrator is told by the school choir teacher that her voice is too deep, and she should either sing with the boys or leave. Because of her unconfident nature and habit of being too hard on herself, she immediately decides she must not be good at singing, and quits. This is another example of an insecurity formed by the comments of others. Luckily, the church minister sees the potential in her voice and invites her to join the church choir. He calls her voice ‘resonant’ rather than deep, and it flickers a ray of hope in her. The importance given to the description of her voice and tone is another foreshadowing- the topic is of importance in the future.
The church minister, Father Fikeni, invites the narrator to spend the weekend with his family. Besides her being a good-natured and hard-working person, it is possible that Father Fikeni knew there would be a praise poet in town, and wanted to take the narrator along with him for the event. This means he saw the potential in the narrator early on. Besides her voice, she also said that she loved to read, a perfect combination for a storyteller or a praise poet. He may have also noticed her timid nature and wanted to continue helping her build confidence and gain inspiration. His invitation causes the narrator great joy, and she is excited to spend time with him and his wife.
Her appreciation at being treated like a member of a home rather than a special guest brings us back to the theme of social isolation. The narrator is used to feeling excluded and being made fun of by the girls in her dormitory, and even the boys in her class. Hence, the way Father and Mrs. Fikeni do not single her out for special treatment, but rather include her as though she is one of them, makes her feel wanted and comfortable. We are introduced to themes of acceptance, as well- she feels accepted by them, something she is not used to back in school.
The most important moment of this story is when the narrator sees a praise poet for the first time. She is absolutely inspired- this is where themes of identity and growth come into play. Listening to the praise poet, the narrator imagines herself in that position. The ease and naturalness with which she thinks about it highlights how well it matches her skill and personality. It is like an awakening of her identity- she has found something that suits her, and this instills an enormous amount of confidence in her. She mentions that “she has never seen a woman praise poet, but she can be the first” which directly relates to Mhlophe’s experiences in being one of the few woman storytellers in her area. This statement by the narrator is a stark contrast to the girl who did not have enough confidence to accept a boy or stay in the choir- it marks her breaking free from judgement and developing her own character.
The theme of self-love has been prevalent throughout the story, beginning with the complete lack thereof. In the beginning, the narrator says firmly “I hated myself.” But at the end, she writes her own poem for the first time and loves how it comes out. This is a link back to her love for reading- she said she reads to keep herself alive, emphasising her passion for it. It is also a full circle for the narrator in terms of her voice- she was insecure about it because she was told it was ‘too deep’, but now as she reads her poem aloud, it sounds clear and bold. It gives a true meaning to the word ‘resonance’. It is possible that the Father had this in mind from the first time he heard her sing. The narrator says “this is the first time I loved myself” marking an enormous leap in her character development and confidence. This self-love came from her acceptance of herself- and this stemmed from her finding her footing and identity. When she found something she was good at, her insecurity became her strength.
She ends by saying that Father Fikeni will definitely be happy for her, highlighting the bond between them. The fact that she wants to share her work represents her improved confidence, and the cock flapping its wings and squawking symbolises excitement and hope for the future. Interestingly, the cock’s loud voice is described just as the narrator herself finally found her own voice. This moment- the narrator writing her first ever poem and loving herself for it- symbolises growth, new beginnings and self-acceptance.
It is interesting that the narrator remains unnamed throughout the story, despite the names of several other characters- even random ones- being mentioned. This may symbolise her feelings about herself- she feels excluded, isolated and insecure. Further, she has not found her identity yet in the beginning of the story, and often lets her actions and feelings mould itself according to the opinions of others. This loneliness and lost feeling is represented by namelessness. As time wears on, she is able to grasp her identity- at that moment, the namelessness holds a new meaning. It represents her hope to make a mark for herself in the world as the first woman praise poet. She has just discovered her passion and is yet to begin her journey- it is a fresh slate. She is unnamed, because the journey to make her name known to the world is just starting.