Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Week 10: Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

Week 10 Dividing lines: Differences in Class, race, Gender and Ideology

Telephone Conversation
by Wole Soyinka

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 dumbfounded 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 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 thunderclap
About my ears--"Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?"

Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka uses irony to depict the absurdity of racism in his poem, "Telephone Conversation.


the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, "How nice!" when I said I had to work all weekend.

a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.

(esp. in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.

Irony, sarcasm, satire indicate mockery of something or someone. The essential feature of irony is the indirect presentation of a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which it occurs.

In the figure of speech, emphasis is placed on the opposition between the literal and intended meaning of a statement; one thing is said and its opposite implied, as in the comment, "Beautiful weather, isn't it?" made when it is raining or nasty.

Irony differs from sarcasm in greater subtlety and wit.

In sarcasm ridicule or mockery is used harshly, often crudely and contemptuously, for destructive purposes. It may be used in an indirect manner, and have the form of irony, as in "What a fine musician you turned out to be!" or it may be used in the form of a direct statement, "You couldn't play one piece correctly if you had two assistants." The distinctive quality of sarcasm is present in the spoken word and manifested chiefly by vocal inflection, whereas satire and irony, arising originally as literary and rhetorical forms, are exhibited in the organization or structuring of either language or literary material. Satire usually implies the use of irony or sarcasm for censorious or critical purposes and is often directed at public figures or institutions, conventional behavior, political situations, etc.

Some examples:

When something bad has happened:
"This is just great," or "That was just perfect."
In response to a bad joke: "That's just so funny," or obviously feigned (and often weak) laughter "Ha. Ha. Ha. NOT."
When a boring statement has been made: "Wow, great!"
When someone has thoroughly botched something: "Great job!" or "Congratulations!"
When somebody accuses another of something bad/wrong: "Do I get bonus points if I act like I care?"
Used when writing: I love school

The speaker of the poem, a dark West African man searching for a new apartment, tells the story of a telephone call he made to a potential landlady. Instead of discussing price, location, amenities, and other information significant to the apartment, they discussed the speaker's skin color.

The landlady is described as a polite, well-bred woman, even though she is shown to be shallowly racist. The speaker is described as being genuinely apologetic for his skin color, even though he has no reason to be sorry for something which he was born with and has no control over.

In this short poem, we can see that the speaker is an intelligent person by his use of high diction and quick wit, not the savage that the landlady assumes he is because of his skin color. All of these discrepancies between what appears to be and what really is create a sense of verbal irony that helps the poem display the ridiculousness of racism.

"The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent"

The first sentence of the poem includes a pun that introduces the theme of the following poem and also informs us that things are not going to be as straightforward as they appear. "The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent"

If we read over these lines quickly, we would assume that the speaker meant "Being neither good nor bad" by the use of the word indifferent . But, indifferent is also defined as "Characterized by a lack of partiality; unbiased." This other definition gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. Instead of the apartment's location being neither good or bad, we read that the apartment's location is unbiased and impartial.

However, we quickly learn in the following lines of the poem that the location of the apartment is the exact opposite of unbiased and impartial.

The speaker is rudely denied the ability to rent the property because of bias towards his skin color. This opening pun quickly grabs our attention and suggests that we as readers be on the lookout for more subtle uses of language that will alter the meaning of the poem.

"Caught I was, foully"

After this introduction, the speaker begins his "self-confession" about his skin color (line 4). It is ironic that this is called a self-confession since the speaker has nothing that he should have to confess since he has done nothing wrong. He warns the landlady that he is African, instead of just informing her. "Caught I was, foully" he says after listening to the silence the landlady had responded with.

I hate a wasted journey—I am African

Again, the word caught connotes that some wrong had been done, that the speaker was a criminal caught committing his crime. By making the speaker actually seem sorry for his skin color, Soyinka shows how ridiculous it really is for someone to apologize for his race. To modern Western thinkers, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has committed no wrongdoing.


Her goodness is seemingly confirmed later on when the speaker says that she was "considerate" in rephrasing her question (line 17). Her response to the caller's question included only "light / Impersonality" (lines 20-21). Although she was described as being a wealthy woman, she was seemingly considerate and only slightly impersonal. The speaker seems almost grateful for her demeanor. Of course, these kind descriptions of the woman are teeming with verbal irony. We know that she is being very shallowly judgmental even while she is seeming to be so pleasant.

The landlady, on the other hand, is described with nothing but positive terms. The speaker mentions her "good-breeding," "lipstick coated" voice, "long gold-rolled/Cigarette holder," all possessions that should make her a respectable lady (lines 7-9). These words describing her wealth are neutral in regard to her personal character, but allow that she could be a good person.
"How dark?,"

After recording the all-important question, "How dark?," the poem pauses for a moment and describes the surroundings to give a sense of reality that shows that the ridiculous question had really been asked (line 10). The speaker describes the buttons in the phone booth, the foul smell that seems to always coexist with public spaces, and a bus driving by outside. His description gives us an image of where the speaker is located: a public phone booth, probably somewhere in the United Kingdom.

The "Red booth," "Red pillar-box," and "Red double-tiered / Omnibus" are all things that one might find in Leeds, the British city in which Soyinka had been studying prior to writing this poem). In addition to the literal images that this description creates, a sense of the anger running through the speaker's mind is portrayed by the repeated use of the word red. This technique is the closest that that the speaker ever comes to openly showing anger in the poem. Although it is hidden with seemingly polite language, a glimpse of the speaker's anger appears in this quick pause in the conversation.

In the end, the landlady repeats her question and the speaker is forced to reveal how dark he is. "West African sepia," he says, citing his passport . She claims not to know what that means. She wants a quantifiable expression of his darkness. His response, feigning simplicity is that his face is "brunette," his hands and feet "peroxide blonde" and his bottom "raven black". He knows that she just wants a measure of his overall skin-color so that she can categorize him, but he refuses to give it to her. Instead he details the different colors of different parts of his body.

"wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?"

As it was meant to, this greatly annoys the landlady and she hangs up on him. In closing, he asks the then empty telephone line, "wouldn't you rather / See for yourself?" The speaker, still playing his ignorance of what the lady was truly asking, sounds as though he is asking whether the landlady would like to meet him in person to judge his skin color for herself. The irony in this question, though, lies in the fact that we know the speaker is actually referring to his black bottom when he asks the woman if she wants to see it for herself. Still feigning politeness, the speaker offers to show his backside to the racist landlady.

Throughout the poem, yet another form of irony is created by the speaker's use of high diction, which shows his education. Although the landlady refuses to rent an apartment to him because of his African heritage and the supposed savagery that accompanies it, the speaker is clearly a well educated individual.

Words like "pipped," "rancid," and "spectroscopic" are not words that a savage brute would have in his vocabulary (lines 9, 12, 23). The speaker's intelligence is further shown through his use of sarcasm and wit in response to the landlady's questions. Although he pretends politeness the entire time, he includes subtle meanings in his speech. The fact that a black man could outwit and make a white woman seem foolish shows the irony in judging people based on their skin color.

Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Conversation" is packed with subtleties. The puns, irony, and sarcasm employed help him to show the ridiculousness of racism. The conversation we observe is comical, as is the entire notion that a man can be judged based on the color of his skin.


shabbir said...

Just went through it... you've done a wonderful job...:)thanks

noushad said...

he a special couragious african writter who spoke against apartid.
well done!!!

Chaiyih said...

thx for sharing this!

taiwo said...

that was great more like the nigerian mind.

Anonymous said...

was fortunate to have read Soyinka as a kid growing up... A legacy of my mother being taught by the man himself at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Aowlowo University). This poem has always had pride of place in my heart.. along side David Diop's "Africa"

debjyoti said...


Anonymous said...

A brilliant explanation of irony,funnily enough, I had just posted this poem on my blog and came across your views on it... :)

recalcitranz said...

Hi, just wondering, since you used comments from another essay that someone else wrote, would it be okay to mention that in at least a note, or to cite your sources? i believe the original essay was from here:

Jambulingam K said...

Thank you for your explanation of the poem. As a teacher of English Literature I find it useful to put my students in the right track of thinking. Long time back Iwrote in a News Paper that"We should know that the chap in an another country is not so bad afterall". I had the same problem with my landlord in south India when he asked me whether I cook nonvegetarian food. The landlords are all the same all over the world..I felt in my case case it was more than racism.I felt I am a foreigner in my own land. This poem is an eye opner for all.

bl0ggErrrr said...

helo poem lovers! enjoy surfing the net!

oasis said...

thanks ws a nice writing.

oasis said...

thank is a nice and detailed piece of writing.

ashwini said...

beautifully explained

Jerrin Joy said...

nice interpretation..thats a great gift you have got there..

timmylarge said...

born genius..i happy to be a part of your generation sir...

bindya said...

thank you very much 4 this detailed explanation. now i can prepare 4the examination.

Chukwuma Livinus Ephraim said...

Wole is a great Nigerian and pride.
He had left an indelible mark in the literary world as to winning a world-wide noble prize award of Literature in 1986 and the first african.
Versatile intil the three genres of Literature.
More of more in other artistic making.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE OF OUR TIME. Blessed are my days to behold you.

baffoe esi esther said...

well explained.thanks PROF

jORI said...

THANKS A LOT!!! This analysis is really useful :-)

nana esi said...

nicely done

PlushCookie said...

Thank you so much for explaining this! The first time I read it, I was like, "Dude, seriously?" and then I started to read your explanation and now I'm really amazed and impressed. Thanks so much~~! :)

nimmi said...

vow!its really very helpful

shruthi said...

great job :) hats off :)

minuja said...

thnxxx for sharing this wonderful collection.

minuja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lily Jasmine Evans said...

wow thank you so much! now i can study for my exam. when i read it i didnt really understand, now i understand completely the significance and the precision he has taken to choose every word. thx so much!!!

PREETY said...

THANX ............

Alan said...

While I admire your explanation of the ironies of the poem, you make some awful cultural assumptions in your use of the word "savage" and "brutal" in relation to the speaker being an educated individual. The idea of "savages" is somewhat outdated, yet you impute these thoughts into the landladies head, though there's nothing that really suggests she thinks of black Africans as "savage brutes." Those thoughts arise out of your own cultural assumptions and are a little misguided I think,

Alan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rajat Raj said...

nice cmmnts

SHLOK said...

now i inderstand the whole poem

Aash101 said...

i had an assingnment based on this poem and we had to analyse the tone and texture of it i had no clue what to do but the explanation after the poem really helped me thnx alot..!!!! a really great poem

bumbu pecel bali said...

this is good post...

i like this...

please can you visit here..

tengs very much...

meenuam kudayathoor said...

it s wonder ful poem... its a cgud im support dis. but dis discrimintion decresed . poet has gret rolee

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