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What is the theme of the poem "Telephone conversation" by Wole Soyinka?

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ramanath | High School Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted March 27, 2010 at 9:02 AM via web

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What is the theme of the poem "Telephone conversation" by Wole Soyinka?

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jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:09 AM (Answer #1)

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"Telephone Conversation," by Wole Soyinka is about racism; more specifically, it is about the way people -- both white and black -- fail to communicate clearly about matters of race.

The narrator of the poem describes a telephone conversation in which he reaches a deal with a landlady to rent an apartment.  He feels that he must let her know that he is black:

Nothing remained
But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,
"I hate a wasted journey—I am African."

This is where the lapses in communication begin.  The landlady's first response is, "Silence. Silenced transmission of / Pressurized good breeding."  She next asks the ridiculous question, "'HOW DARK?...ARE YOU LIGHT/OR VERY DARK?'"

The narrator is "dumbfounded."  Instead of telling her, "It's none of your business," or simply, "Let's forget about the apartment," he offers a cryptic response: "'West Affrican sepia.'"

When the landlady asks for clarification, the narrator only confuses matters further:

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.

He makes matters even worse by saying that "friction" has somehow turned his buttocks "raven black."

(If you want to see an interesting discussion of how blacks and whites fail to communicate, follow the link below to Barack Obama's famous speech about race from March 2008.)

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radhika230695 | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted August 17, 2011 at 11:02 PM (Answer #3)

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The poem “Telephone Conversation” has been written by Wole Soyinka. Wole Soyinka is Nigerian playwright, novelist, critic and the first African writer to get the Nobel Prize award for Literature in 1986. In this poem, the poet describes a telephone conversation between a black man and a white woman. The black man is searching for an apartment to live in and is inquiring the lady for any availability. At the beginning of the poem, the man “confesses” that he is an African. He confesses the colour of his skin as if he had done a crime. After this, the poet uses irony and sarcasm to describe their conversation. All of these discrepancies between what appears to be and what really has created a sense of verbal irony that helps the poem display the ridiculousness of racism.

“Nothing remained but self-confession. ‘Madam,’ I warned, ‘I hate a wasted journey-I am African.’

The African man confesses to the landlady that he is black. This was the first use of irony in the poem. He feels sorry about something that he was born with and had no control over. He says that he hates a “wasted journey” which indicates that he has been rejected before due to racial discrimination. The landlady asks with a sarcastic tone if he was light or very dark. A sense of anger rose inside the man and it has been portrayed by repeating the word red.

“Shamed by ill-mannered silence, surrender pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification. Considerate she was, varying the emphasis-“

He describes the landlady in nothing but positive terms. Her goodness is seemingly confirmed later on when the speaker says that she was "considerate" in rephrasing her question of his skin colour.  These kind descriptions of the landlady were filled with verbal irony. After this the African uses nothing but irony and sarcasm in his speech as he describes himself.

“‘You mean- like plain or milk chocolate?’ Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light impersonality.”

In haste, the man said that he was“west African sepia”. The landlady suddenly realized that he was actually black. Again, she asked hinted a question about the colour of his skin. He told her that he was brunette; facially brunette, but the palm of his hand and soles of his feet was “peroxide blonde”. The African man was being very sarcastic about the colour of his skin but the landlady could not accept the fact that he was black. When his sarcasm reached a peak, he sensed that the landlady was goind to hang up on him. He suddenly stops and says, “’Madam,’ I pleaded,’ wouldn’t you rather see for yourself?”

This poem uses a lot of irony and sarcasm. The poet mainly uses irony in three places. The first tone of irony is sensed when the man confesses that he is an African. When describing the lady, the poet uses a lot of sarcastic language. Irony is lastly used when the man describes himself to the woman. The last line of the poem also leaves a sense of mystery in the reader. Wole Soyinka brings out a great use of irony in this poem.

 

 

 

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted March 27, 2010 at 11:12 AM (Answer #2)

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Here's "Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka, along with a comment about theme from the same website I found the poem on:

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 situation and resulting conversation the speaker finds himself in is, indeed, absurd.  It is absurd in the traditional sense--it makes absolutely no sense--and it is absurd in the literary sense--totally out of the speaker's control.  How does one salvage a situation in which one is asked how dark one is?  The speaker replies with tongue-in-cheek irony, making fun of the woman at the other end of the telephone line.

The speaker uses humor, in addition to irony.  Or, the irony is humorous, I guess.  The poem reveals ignorance, culture gaps, problems with verbal conversation, and most importantly, of course, prejudice.  It is a look at the absurdity of racism. 

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vaig1234 | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted December 1, 2012 at 6:55 AM (Answer #4)

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In short telephone coversation is based on the theme of racism.the narrator finds it difficult to find accomodation only because of his skin colour.Instead of discussing renting prices and baraining they conversation is bases on their skin colour.Towards the end when realization dawns upon him he tries ridiculing or mocking the lanlady.Again this story has lots of sarcasm and somewhere a tone of dejection.In the end we can only sympathise with the narrator.

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