“Telephone Conversation” is a poem written by the Nigerian playwright, novelist, and poet, Wole Soyinka. Professor Soyinka is a renowned figure in African literature and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. The poem was written during a time when issues of racial prejudice and discrimination were particularly relevant and contentious globally.
Soyinka’s poem features in A Book of African Verse, a poetry anthology edited by John Reed and Clive Wake. The poem reflects personal experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination that individuals of African descent faced, both home and abroad. “Telephone Conversation” exposes the insidious nature of racial prejudice through a seemingly mundane phone conversation. The use of the telephone conversation as a central metaphor symbolizes the challenge of communication and understanding between people of different races and backgrounds.
“Telephone Conversation” narrates a phone call between the speaker and a landlady as he seeks accommodation. In the course of the conversation between the landlady and her prospective tenant, she asks about the colour of his skin. In response, the speaker describes himself as “West African sepia,” but the landlady insists on categorizing him as dark, to which he humorously responds by mentioning that other parts of his body have different shades. The poem ends with the speaker suggesting that the landlady see for herself.
The landlady’s questions the speaker’s skin colour, and the speaker’s clever response projects the absurdity of racial discrimination. The poem highlights the discomfort and racism that ensue during their conversation, which owes to the needless question of racial identity raised by the condescending but ignorant woman. It is a commentary on the racism and stereotypes that people of African descent have historically faced when seeking housing or acceptance in some white societies.
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Structurally, Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is a poem of thirty-five (35) lines arranged into one long stanza. It is a narrative poem in that the poetic persona narrates his encounter with a racist landlady. The poem is also characterized by caesuras which allow sentences to run from one line to the next. Now, we are going to run through the poem line by line.
The price seemed reasonable, location Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived Off premises. Nothing remained
The opening line sets the scene, suggesting that the price for the accommodation was acceptable to the speaker. The location seems to be of lesser concern initially. The indifference towards the location implies that it wasn’t a crucial factor for the speaker. The landlady claims she lives “off premises,” and that there’s no one present on the property at that moment.
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.
The speaker prefaces the conversation with a cautionary statement. He then discloses his African identity on the grounds that he does not like “a wasted journey.” The silence that ensues after the speaker’s revelation signifies a paused or disrupted communication flow.
The voice that eventually responds to the speaker’s revelation is characterized as refined or genteel (“good-breeding”). Descriptive imagery is used to depict the landlady’s appearance, possibly signifying a certain level of sophistication and refinement. The image of the cigarette holder indicates a certain elegance. The speaker, however, feels caught or trapped in an unpleasant situation, as indicated by “foully.”
The landlady’s abrupt and direct inquiry about the speaker’s skin tone exposes her racial bias, turning the conversation sharply towards the issue of race and colour. She puts the speaker in a position to choose between two extreme contrasts as to the colour of his skin. The mention of “Button B. Button A.” signifies the switching or toggling between options, perhaps indicating her fixation on categorizing people by skin colour.
The speaker then describes the unpleasantness and hypocrisy of the public facade—people hiding their true feelings or prejudices behind societal conventions. He uses the expression “Stench / Of rancid breath” to metaphorically refer to the repulsiveness of the landlady’s biased inquiries.
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.
The repetition of “Red” in line 13 emphasizes the vivid imagery of the surroundings, suggesting the environment in which the conversation is taking place—a red booth or a public telephone booth. The description of the squelching tar, possibly from a passing omnibus (bus), adds to the sensory details of the scene. The exclamation “It was real!” could indicate the speaker’s astonishment and realization of the actuality of the situation. He is experiencing racial prejudice firsthand.
The speaker, feeling stunned and bewildered by the landlady’s insensitive questions, is compelled to ask for a simpler or clearer way to address the issue. This showcases the speaker’s struggle to comprehend the landlady’s fixation on skin colour as the defining factor.
There is a slight shift in the landlady’s approach. She attempts to rephrase her question. She persistently continues her inquiries about the speaker’s skin tone. This brings about the speaker’s realization of the landlady’s narrow perspective and her insistence on categorizing him into one of these limited categories.
‘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
The speaker, using a metaphorical comparison, attempts to humorously convey the superficiality and absurdity of the landlady’s questioning. By likening his skin tone to variations of chocolate, the speaker challenges the simplistic way in which the landlady views racial identity.
The landlady’s response to the speaker’s attempt to explain his skin tone using the chocolate analogy is depicted as clinical, cold, and dismissive (“crushing in its light impersonality”). It shows her refusal to engage with the complexity of racial identity beyond simple classifications.
The speaker, adapting quickly to the situation, attempts to align with the landlady’s perspective, albeit reluctantly. He makes a deliberate choice to describe his skin tone using the term “West African sepia.” He then attempts to ground his description of skin tone in an official document (passport), implying that the information provided is legitimate and should be accepted. The ensuing silence indicates the landlady’s lack of comprehension.
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?’
The landlady’s attempt to understand the speaker’s explanation is depicted as a whimsical flight of imagination rather than an earnest effort. The abrupt interruption by the landlady’s accent, possibly indicating her frustration or insistence on her biased perspective, brings the conversation back to reality. The landlady’s forceful manner of speaking, described as being “hard on the mouthpiece,” signifies her insistence on her own perceptions. Her question (“WHAT’S THAT?”) shows her lack of familiarity or refusal to accept the speaker’s attempt to explain his skin tone as “West African sepia,” further emphasizing her narrow view of racial identity.
The landlady’s admission of not understanding the term used by the speaker (“West African sepia”) further illustrates her refusal to acknowledge or accept the speaker’s cultural descriptor. The speaker then tries to simplify by likening his skin tone to that of a brunette (someone with dark hair), using a more familiar analogy.
The landlady’s response reflects her insistence on categorizing the speaker solely based on the superficial aspect of skin tone, considering the comparison to a brunette as an indicator of darkness. The speaker, however, tries to convey the complexity of identity by suggesting that it’s not entirely dark, hinting at the multifaceted nature of his racial identity.
He describes the facial aspect of his appearance, indicating that in terms of facial features, it might align with the brunette descriptor. However, he hints at a more comprehensive understanding of his identity beyond mere facial characteristics. He tries to present a fuller picture of his identity beyond facial appearance. By referring to the palm of his hand and the soles of his feet, areas less exposed to the sun, the speaker implies a lighter tone in those parts compared to his face. The speaker metaphorically describes the lighter skin colour of his less sun-exposed body parts as “a peroxide blond,” suggesting a stark contrast to the assumed darkness based on facial appearance. The mention of “friction, caused—” hints at the physical change in skin colour due to everyday activities. This “friction” questions the notion of skin colour as a fixed and absolute characteristic.
The speaker humorously explains how prolonged sitting has caused a change in the colour of his bottom. When the poetic persona senses that the landlady is about to hang up on him, he offers the landlady an opportunity to determine the colour of his skin firsthand rather than relying solely on verbal description: ‘wouldn’t you rather / See for yourself?’
Again, we see in “Telephone Conversation” how satiric Soyinka can get. We’ve seen this much in some of his works like A Play of Giants. The poem begins with an innocent call from a black African to a white landlady. The call is meant to be about renting a place but the landlady condescendingly makes it about the colour of the prospective tenant. The speaker however does not give it easy to the landlady. He describes several colour shades of his body, establishing that it is not that simple to say he is light or very dark. His descriptions leave the landlady confused and dumbfounded.
By the end of the telephone call, we get the rift that colour and race are definite irrelevancies. We see how the speaker intellectually makes a fool of the landlady’s narrow and myopic worldview. If you ask me, “Telephone Conversation” is one heck of a satire. Soyinka no doubt makes a mockery of racial identifications and points to the complexities of racial identities.