Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka: Summary and Analysis

In this poem, Telephone Conversation, Wole Soyinka is trying to highlight the impact of racial discrimination in the micro-structure of society. The title of the poem clearly reveals that two people are talking on the phone and the theme of racial discrimination is carried out through the dialogue form.

Wole Soyinka (Born in 1934)

When the poem begins, it is informed that one speaker is looking for the rented flat and the price is reasonable and the location is indifferent to the race and colour of the skin of the people. So, the speaker, the African American room seeker being positive and excited makes a telephone to a white landlady asking a room to rent. Quite opposed to his expectation, the land lady remains silent as soon as she gets his identity as an African. This silence reflects her indifference and reservation towards the blacks. She further inquiries about his colour as she conforms him as the black she hangs up the phone. This incident reflects the discrimination suffered by the blacks. In words, the landlady has not said anything, not has she denied his request. She just hangs up the phone which is her choice. She chooses not to listen to him any longer.

This poem was written at the moment when the blacks were given the equal rights and responsibilities constitutionally and politically famously known as Apartheid. Despite these rights at the macro-level of the society, micro changes are hard to achieve. Racial discrimination does not end until the land lady is changed personally. Political changes would not bring any other changes. The discrimination becomes serious, especially when the speaker says “Madam-wouldn’t you rather see for yourself”, He requests her to meet him in person. Without listening to his request she hangs up the phone. These two are not in dialogue. Change is possible only through the mutual dialogue of the black and white. But this poem does not hint towards the possibility of such dialogue. The open-ended structure of the poem represents the uncertain future of the blacks. It is certain how long they have to plead like that.

Wole Soyinka has mainly used two literary devices to deliver the message of anger and frustration towards the racial discrimination at the micro level of the society. One is imagery; "lipstick coated, gold rolled cigarette holder piped" is the mental image of the lady made by the African speaker by just listening to her voice on the phone. His attitude towards her is that she is socially superior than him and from a higher strata. The image of a huge bus crushing the black tar is highly symbolic of how the major White community dominates and insults the minor African community. He becomes so angry when she further asks about the darkness of his colour to confirm his identity that he sees red everywhere.

The other important poetic device is irony, that the poet uses in the poem. The irony lies in the fact that the lady has given an ad about the flat stating that the price is reasonable and indifferent. Indifferent in the case of colour of the skin of any people, but when the African room seeker confesses about his identity, she holds silence and does not respond to him. Her words and action do not match. Her words appear to be liberal and generous, but the reality is that her action is full of hatred and indifference, just the opposite of her own words. This vehement irony is meant to attack the so called social equality created by the Whites. The next irony is that the African speaker ‘self-confesses’ about his identity to the white lady, which vividly shows his loser mentality and lack of confidence in his own color of the skin upon which he does not have any control. He has to be so meek and feel lower as if he has committed any crime.

Related Topic

Wole Soyinka: Biography