Poem: “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka


“Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka depicts a speaker’s experience when trying to rent a room, presumably in a European country. The poem highlights the uncomfortable exchange between the African speaker and a prejudiced white landlady.

Image by Pfüderi from Pixabay.
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, Lip-stick 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 assent was clinical, crushing in its light Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted, I chose. ‘West African sepia’—and as an afterthought, ‘'Down in my passport.’ Silence for spectroscopic Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged 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 blond. Friction, caused— Foolishly madam—by sitting down, has turned My bottom raven black—One moment madam!’—sensing Her receiver rearing on the thunder clap About my ears—‘Madam,’ I pleaded, ‘wouldn’t you rather See for yourself?’ — Wole Soyinka


Reed, J., & Wake, C. (Eds.). (1984). A new book of African verse. African Writers Series 8. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.

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