Kinna Reads

A blog of books, reading and world literature

21 Days/21 Poems: Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

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The theme for today’s 21 Days/21 Poems is prejudice.

Telephone Conversation

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?”

Prejudice is a ridiculous idea. Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation illustrates this perfectly.  The poem is packed with puns, irony and sarcasm.  It’s hard not to imagine that this conversation (or something like it) actually took place.  Soyinka tries to make light of the situation.  But it’s not really funny, is it? How can one apologize for one’s race? The speaker, a West African man, uses words like “confession” and “caught” yet he’s done nothing wrong, he just needs a place to live.  Such a basic need. But even in his attempt to secure his living situation, he has to still explain and clarify who and what he is. The landlady is so polite but so judgmental and prejudiced against black folks. The speaker’s anger is evident in the repeated use of the word red and in the poem’s pauses.  “West African sepia” is priceless. In the end, he offers his arse for viewing. Classic Soyinka.

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Author: Kinna

I'm a bibliophile who reads and reviews international, contemporary and classic literary fiction. I'm partial to the works of African women writers.

39 thoughts on “21 Days/21 Poems: Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

  1. One of my favourite poems. It was my desk top background for a very long time.

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    • This poem and Abiku are Soyinka’s most loved poems, I think. Any other favorites that you care to share?

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    • This poem greatly illustrates prejudice that occurs in modern day life. I could easily compare this particular type of prejudice to some types of prejudice that occur today. Wole Soyinka did a great job in portraying this and made it easy for me to understand the message while using great vocabulary. At first it was hard for me to completely understand the poem but once I read it over again I understood what Wole was portraying completely.

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  2. Ah, another powerful poem. Amazing collection you’re sharing here, thank you for doing this.

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  3. This is my favourite Nigerian poem by far. A true classic. And do you see how he distinguishes between his words and those of the white landlady? Her words are in CAPITALS. It’s moving. Even in font, he carries the idea that the woman is probably of some purported higher standing. Emotional, really. Thanks for sharing.

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    • A classic, indeed. But Soyinka is super-poet. I tend to lump him and Derek Walcott together. Somehow, they never fail, never. Always superb . It’s the rich use of English coupled, sometimes, with a mocking tone that always bring me back to Soyinka and Walcott.

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  4. And the landlady run. She wouldn’t want to see a peroxide palms and soles and raven black arse. No! This is one of my favourite Soyinka poem. He makes fun of the land lady and it was clear she doesn’t understand West African sepia.

    And it is disheartening to hear these things happen in this period too. Nii Ayikwei Parkes shared a facebook status where he was annoyed with ‘whites’ complimenting him on his beautiful language. He writes, if I remember correctly “to the next ignoramus complimenting me on my English, ‘in Africa our animals even speak English'” or something like that. So you see, knowingly or unknowingly such prejudices still exist.

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    • Yes, it does still exist. I’m always encountering prejudice in Ghana. People making offensive comments against others of a different group. What I find amazing is the assumption that I would share their views. I’m always correcting people or making it known that such comments are not welcomed when I’m around. When will we ever learn and change?

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  5. This is a beautifully written poem. I loved it. You are always bring the best of poems to my notice. Thanks, Kinna.

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  6. What a poem. Soyinka makes light of what clearly isn’t a funny situation and in doing so I think it makes the poem that much more powerful. I really must read more Soyinka, and soon!

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  9. I love this poem, “West African sepia” is priceless indeed and I love how he plays with the concept of kindness (“considerate she was”, “but, madam, you should see the rest of me”) and what you could call provocation.

    Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s comment is appropriate: in Europe some people don’t get that Africans or Asians may speak European languages as well as they do, sometimes better. Many Italians were surprised to learn that Tunisians speak French.

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  10. guys we have being doing this poem in our English class this morning, yes people the poem is very poerful and making sence.

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  11. Telephone Conversation is one poem that truly scorns the whites prejudice on color and its texture.
    It is so stupid how we blacks adore the white skin, while to the white,our color(black)is a synonym for evil. Does it not sound silly?
    Telephone Conversation is one poem that upholds the fact that there is nothing wrong in being black.

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  12. I really like this poem because the way the poet used sarcasm, irony and the other devices in order to beautify his poem

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  14. This was a great read. I love how Soyinka added humor to a racially frustrating situation. It is interesting the tone he decided to model his poem after. Nothing beats a little sarcasm, and it defintetly shows the struggle people of color had to endure in extremely prejiduce times.

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  15. Out of all the Nigerian Poems I have read, this was my favorite by far. It is so clever of him to actually transform a serious situation into a comical one. Once the reader sinks into the poem, he can clearly modify that prejudice has took over every stanza. This poem that Soyinka is truly heart touching and extremely powerful. Making the readers realize that every negative aspect has its positive side.

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  16. I agree that prejudice is a ridicoulus idea. And the fact that some people are still prejudice against other people suprises me. I do not remember having to deal with racism or prejudice as I grew up in the United States, however, I am aware that acts of prejudice are still happening. And the poem Telephone Conversation is just one of many examples of racism and prejudice. However this poem is different from the other poems that express prejudice because Wole Soyinka adds humor to the poem. Soyinka took a terrible experience and made it into something silly, making it seem as if the whole conversation was silly and ridicoulus. I liked this poem because it had humour and it is different from the other poems that I have read.

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  17. I like how this poem raises awarness of how prejudice still exists to this day. Wole Soyinka shows it in a way that can happen to anyone and the way he does it makes the landlady seem ridiculous for using the color of the speaker’s skin the deciding factor of whether or not she was going to rent her property to him. Although she thinks that she has the upperhand due to her race and “good breeding”, Soyinka clearly is in control of the conversation by the way he is toying with her.

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  18. To me, this poem really is the type of poem that one will never forget. It’s an interesting, entertaining, and lighthearted example of a serious issue, which is racism. Racism is a very touchy topic and this conversation Soyinka was in could have turned very troublesome but Soyinka was able to turn it into something satirical and generally quite amusing- turning the tables on the landlady in the end. Turning a negative situation into a positive one is the best thing Soyinka could have done in my opinion, making this poem all the more memorable and favorable.

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  19. I feel like Soyinka here would be a good mentor for me. I, too, love to use whit and sarcasm when I’m in situations like this. It’s unbelievable that even to this day racism still occurs. I know I get few whispers here and there simply because I’m Hispanic. I have had one persom assume that was an uneducated Mexican and then they compared my IQ to that of a squirrel. When in reality I’m a Puerto Rican with an A average. I’ve had to pull some whit out of my ass to turn the tables. That’s why I love the irony of this poem. This woman thinks that she is so much more superior than Soyinka when in reality, she sounds like an idiot racist. Heck, I would be seeing red too if I was on the receiving end of that conversation. Some things just don’t change.

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  20. Hi Kinna, first of all great blog! This poem instantly became one of my favorites as well, it reminded me of airport security as well as as the government-sponsored segregation that occurred in New York a few decades back. Being an Immigrant, i have endured prejudice in this country since my arrival. My people (latinos), have become a scapegoat for the US political and economical issues. Hopefully this will soon change, as we push foward for better social reforms!

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  21. I found the poem confusing when I first read it. The whole second paragraph where he talks about red booths and red pillar boxes just had me lost. It wasn’t until the end where I saw that he was using humor and sarcasm to lighten the sitution. When he said “wouldn’t you rather see it for yourself?” I could picture him using gestures. Another thing I enjoyed about the poem was his use to capitalizing everything the landlady said. I thought that it really emphasized her views and how crucial it was to her that he wasn’t dark. Without that, one may assume she was being casual instead of completely serious.

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  22. *use of capitalizing everything

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  23. I really like this poem. It is both sarcastic and based on an issue people face in their everyday lives. Prejudice people still exist and it amazes me because one would think the world has come so far. It is sad but the author gives it a humorous tone. I see prejudice situations inmy life many times- sometimes I am treated differently because I am hispanic or when I go to the mall, sales associates look at me as if I am going to steal something. It is just the way life is I am come to conclusion. My favorite part of Wole’s poem is the end- “Madam, wouldn’t you rather see for yourself?” A break from the rest of the peom’s seriousness. I think in this poem the African American male finds himself in a place such as Europe where everything is a little weird. Red booth, Red pillar-box and a Red double-tiered Omnibus. The narrator writes: “The price was reasonable, location indifferent.” Maybe thats what the poem refers to. Maybe he finds himself in a place he doesn’t belong in.

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  24. I agree with Kinna’s response. what’s happening in the poem is that there is a man named Wole who is looking for an apartment to rent. All seems well until the land lady begins to let her prejudice side show. She begins to ask about how dark he is and what shade of darkness he is. Wole catches on to her prejudice comments and retaliates with quick wit, and turns the joke on her. I’ve experienced prejudice before during my junior year. There was a teacher named mrs.Flynn, she was an english teacher. there was one day when we were reading a story showing how awful Dominicans were during a war between dominican republic and haiti. So the teacher said that all Dominicans were prejudice and horrible people.

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  25. I enjoyed reading the poem, especially with the yelling dialogue! Soyinka has a great sense of humor, if she wouldve asked that question to someone else, who didnt see it like Soyinka, there wouldve been problems, that person wouldve felt offended, I wouldve too. I never understood why or how someone could hate someone for not being the same as them, as if it were their choice. Theyve got to have an ugly trait in their body to hate like that. People that are prejudice make it seem like the people they hate on, are all the same, when in reality its not like that. Maybe the hatred comes out of fear, its still not an excuse tho. Times have changed, its not around as much as it use to be, but its definitely not completely gone.

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  26. I agree with your statement of how ridiculous prejudice is. The interaction between the narrator and the land lady was entertaining but it reminds me of me and my mother. The first time i told my mother that i was dating a black girl, she asked me how dark she was. When i told her she was very dark she responded with oh my god no. First time they met, my mother would not speak to her, and even two years later they don’t interact with eachother. As upseting as it is, it’s a reality of life, and i can’t change how my mother is.

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  27. I loved this poem! It is very interesting and brings racism into a different light, showing how ridiculous poeple can actually be because of ones color. We know racism is no joke and can hurt people but this poem made some humor out of it. Soyinka went along with the lady on the phone which shows how stupid people actually sound. Being prejudice against someone with darker skin sounds so stupid to me! How is your skin color supposed to define who you are? Racism is an on going issue, and I really hope people realize how stupid they sound being prejudice.

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  28. Wole Soyinka is an amazing writer for the simple reason that he takes negative aspects in life including prejuice actions, and turns them into a comic dialouge that every reader can enjoy. This small exerpt showed me how ridiculous prejudice people really are. Instead of adding negativity to the problem, Wole Soyinka simply made fun of the woman who was asking him how dark he is. It shows the reader that situations like these could easily be avoided because there is no logic in treating another person differently because of their skin color.

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  29. This poem is one of the most unique I have ever read. The way Soyinka phrases his responses to the person on the telephone is different in the sense that he is toying with the person on the other line humorously. He strategically words his responses so that the person does not even know. I try to argue back this way when presented with an uneasy situation. I’m Asian so its assumed that I’m good at math and dedicated to school but I really love to play sports, especially baseball. In our high school league I sometimes get weird looks when I go to the mound to pitch as if I’m a foreign exchanged student from Japan getting ready to throw a gyro ball. However I don’t care. I speak with my actions and performance, rather than words.

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  30. This poem was one of the most interesting poems I have ever read! It delivers it’s message in a way that is not usually done. Wole Soyinka talks about a serious situation and expresses it in a humorous way, which is not usually done. Most of the time when people describe prejudice ways it is expressed in a negative way with anger and disappointment, but Wole expresses it in a different form, which interests the reader like any other. The reaction a normal person would have was to be upset and to take the situation to a whole other level, but Soyinka uses sarcasm which changes everything. This could teach people that sometimes you don’t have to get upset by the stupidity of the world, but you may laugh and ignore the negativity and be happy,

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  31. I really enjoyed reading this poem. I found it very interesting and delivered a clear message. It brought prejudice into the light and showed how truly ridiculous people can be just because of the color of someone’s skin. Wole Soyinka is a great writer. Most when talking about prejudice shed a negative and angry light on it. Soyinka turned this phone conversation into more of a comedy which kept the reader’s attention.

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