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Telephone Conversation By Wole Soyinka

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

The primary theme of "Telephone Conversation" is racism. In the poem, a black man tries to confirm a housing arrangement with a landlady over the phone. He wishes to inform the landlady that he is black, and a ridiculous conversation ensues regarding how dark his skin color is. The poem is a tongue-in-cheek statement on racism, with the speaker responding with sarcasm and humor to the landlady's insulting questions. The poem also emphasizes the lack of communication between different races. 

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A key theme that emerges in this poem is the dehumanizing effects of racism.

As the speaker and the landlady engage in conversation about the rental property, the landlady detects nothing of the speaker's race. It is only when he "confesses" his race that she takes issue with the possible tenant who has contacted her. Instead of asking him suitable questions which a landlady might justifiably ask a tenant, such as his occupation or family situation or income, she reduces her inquiries to one simple aspect of his identity: race.

Her questions lean toward lunacy. She wants to know if he is "dark" or "very light," the questions screamed at the reader through all caps. She thus has attributed some sense of worth not only to the speaker's skin color but to the shade of that color. Seemingly, a "very light" skin tone might mean that he could be an acceptable tenant, but a dark-skinned person will not. She asks the question not just once—but twice.

The landlady's impersonal simplification of race is met with a much more complex response. The speaker tells her that he is "West African sepia." Of course, she has no idea how to begin processing this, and that is just the speaker's point. Race has no place in his evaluation as a potential suitable tenant.

As the speaker begs to be truly seen for who he is, which is far more than a shade of brown, the landlady prepares to slam the receiver in his ears. Thus, the poem ends with the white landlady ultimately holding the power of social justice as the speaker asserts his desire to be seen as more than only his race.

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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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user4818525 | Student

How does this poem show irony 

vaig1234 | Student

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.

radhika230695 | Student

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.