The Article The telephone conversation by Wole Soyinka is prepared by Mr. Dipen Bezbaruah, HOD English Department, Pub Kamrup College
The poem “The Telephone Conversation”, written by the African poet Wole Soyinka, depicts a West African man’s attempt to rent an apartment from a white landlady and the landlady’s refusal to grant his request based on his skin color. Written in the first person narrative point of view, the poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka is a poetic satire against the widely-spread racism in modern Western society.
Once the landlady answers, the man decides that he must confess his African descent and feels that he must get the fact out of the way. However, unaware of the extent of the landlady’s ignorance, he is shocked and annoyed by her cold, impersonal and demeaning approach to his confession. On hearing her reply, her voice strikes the man as that of a pretentious snob, describing the voice as “Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled/Cigarette-holder piped”. The landlady, concerned by this information placed in front of her, replies, bluntly, “HOW DARK?” Soyinka chooses to use capital letters to capture the woman’s speech, perhaps trying to convey the pure simplicity of her thought process.
Dumbfounded/shocked by the woman’s reply, the man is left in silence, and the woman pursues her inquiry (ironic as it is the man who phoned to inquire) into the color of the man, as she says, “…LIGHT OR VERY DARK?” The man is shocked by this simplistic approach, Soyinka comparing it to the buttons in the telephone box “Button A. Button B”. We are made aware of his anger as he refers to the color of the booth, the pillar-box, and the double-tiered omnibus; all red. This focus on color also refers to the racism being portrayed in the poem. cryptic
Soyinka humorously uses sarcasm as he says ‘Shamed/By ill-mannered silence” when it is obvious that it is the woman who is the ill-mannered of the two. The woman repeats her question, as roughly as she had done previously and the man replies in a complicated manner, “West African Sepia”. The man is aware that the woman is oblivious to such detail and vocabulary. The use of such phrases creates humorous irony, as it is her who is treating the man as a lower being yet he confuses her with his intelligence. She wants a simplistic ‘black and white answer.
The man, with the woman still confused, sarcastically continues to describe himself, trying to simplify it for her, yet continuing in a higher register than her own, telling her that his face is “brunette”, his hands and feet are a “peroxide blond” and his bottom is “raven black. The use of such phrases expresses his anger at her as he insults her simple-mindedness and her desire to categorize him. The Landlady, discontented with the man’s answer and still unaware of the irony and the man’s insult, hangs up the phone. With an empty telephone line, the man pleads to her sense of decency “Wouldn’t you rather see for yourself?” leaving his question unto the reader.
In the last part of the poem, the poem makes use of humor because the woman doesn’t seem to understand what he is talking about, so he asks the woman if she wants to look at his whole body to see if it is the whole black in color, he especially states ‘his bottom is raven black. Although the woman wants to suppress her anger and be polite, instead, she can’t stand any longer and she offs the conversation first at last.
The poet thinks there shouldn’t have any racism existed, people can’t judge others by only looking from their appearance, instead, they should see and know others fully so as to judge what kind of people he is.
The poem is in the form of free verse. It is because ‘conversation’ isn’t something well-planned; instead, the speakers speak what they want during the conversation. Also, with the aid of end-stop lines and run-on lines, the outlook of the poem gives readers a sense of random formation, which fully suits the way of ‘telephone conversation’ flows.
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