Telephone Conversation

The price seemed reasonable, location

Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived

Off premises. Nothing remained

But self-confession. “Madam” , I warned,

“I hate a wasted journey – I am African.”

Silence. Silenced transmission of pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,

Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled

Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.

“HOW DARK?”…I had not misheard….”ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?” Button B. Button A. Stench

Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.

Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered

Omnibus squelching tar.

It was real! Shamed

By ill-mannered silence, surrender

Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.

Considerate she was, varying the emphasis-

“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT” Revelation came

“You mean- like plain or milk chocolate?”

Her accent was clinical, crushing in its light

Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted

I chose. “West African sepia”_ and as afterthought.

“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic

Flight of fancy, till truthfulness chaged her accent

Hard on the mouthpiece “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding “DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”

“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?”

“Not altogether.

Facially, I am brunette, but madam you should see the rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet.

Are a peroxide blonde. Friction, caused-

Foolishly madam- by sitting down, has turned

My bottom raven black- One moment madam! – sensing

Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap

About my ears- “Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather

See for yourself?”

 

About the Author

Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is one of the most sought after Nigerian writers and the first person in Africa and the diaspora to be honored with a Nobel Prize in Literature (1986).

 

Background

Written in first person narrative, Summary of “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka draws upon an unseen picture of humanity where it projects the innate difference that resides between individuals. Depicted through the conversation of a white lady and an African man, the poem is a relevant comment on racism coupled with prejudices that still exist like a millstone. The idea of Telephone conversation is how human beings are inclined to focus and sort out issues that are based on individual differences which seldom give us a chance to look into our souls and determine where and how far we have deteriorated within us.

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It’s not difficult for us to determine and differentiate between anything that is good or bad, or black and white, or old and young. Telephone conversation by Wole Soyinka is a blatant example of how a simple communication is vehemently affected as we focus too much attention on our recognizable differences; resistance is created to stop all and everything that is needed to form a bond, and act as a lubricant between human beings. Also, important in this case is to note how Wole Soyinka uses words dipped in racism to create impact that turns out to be highly detrimental to the conversation.

 

Summary of Telephone Conversation

In “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka, the poet talks about two people on the phone and the story goes on to narrate how the African man is looking for a house and the landlady has proposed a considerable price for the same. The poem strikes a positive note as the man gets to know that his privacy won’t be hampered as the landlady doesn’t stay on the premises. The African man is happy to know that and just before he makes up his mind to consider the offer, he drops in to mention that he is black. On the other end of the line, there was nothing but silence which the African man takes as an impolite gesture of refusal.

 

However, the silence is soon broken as the landlady starts to speak again asking him to explain exactly how dark he is. First, the man thinks that he might have misheard the question but when the landlady repeats, he understands that this is something very important for her to know before she allows him to rent her house. This is something that came out entirely devastating for the African man and for a moment, he felt disgusted with the question and fancies himself to be a machine, like the phone, and that he has been reduced to being a button on the phone. He could also smell the foul odour from her words and he sees “red’ everywhere all around.

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The idea of “Telephone Conversation” is to depict how brutal it can be for a man who is subjected to racial discrimination. Thoughts of racism and pre-notions come blended with an element of irony that takes over the theme of “Telephone conversation”. The Afro-American man is reduced to shame by the sudden silence from the other side and he gets into a state of make belief where he sarcastically thinks that the lady broke her silence and gave him option to choose and define ‘how dark’ he is. “Like chocolate, or dark or light?” Then, he goes on to answer that he is defined as “West African sepia” in his passport. The lady not knowing how dark it could be didn’t want to embarrass the man further by resorting to silence. So, she asks him to define what he means. The man replies, that it is almost similar to being a brunette but a dark brunette.

 

All this while, the man has been holding on to codes of formality which breaks loose at the landlady’s insensitiveness. The African man now replies with a hint of irony and sarcasm that he is black but he is not that black for anyone to be put to shame. He also says that the soles of his feet and the palms of his hand are all white but because he sits a lot, his buttocks have turned black due to friction. He knows that the landlady will never be convinced with his black complexion and he senses that she might slam down the receiver on him. At such a crucial juncture, he makes a desperate and silly attempt to plead her to come and take a good look at him but couldn’t help the situation from getting worse. Finally, the landlady slams down the receiver on him.

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Theme of Telephone Conversation

The theme of “Telephone conversation” rests upon the conflict between the protagonist and the absurdity of racism that makes the antagonist take a negative stance towards him. The struggle begins with the protagonist’s confession of being an African; a black man, which sparks up the notion of racism inside the landlady, who denies renting him the house. The fear of being judged on the merit of being a black man, projects a heavily corrupt image of the society where individuality is at stake.

 

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