Telephone conversation by Wole Soyinka is about, as the title suggests, a conversation over the telephone between two people – a West African man and a British landlady. The former was looking for a place to live in London. He felt that the ‘price seemed reasonable’ and the ‘location indifferent’ in the sense that it was impartial. The landlady claimed that she ‘lived off premises’ possibly indicating that it was a source of income for her. The poem is in free verse and appears like a conversation, like an active telegraphic dialogue.
It is a poem that takes the support of irony to put across a point strongly, that is, absurdity of racism. The poet has taken this creative idea to convey his anger over how society gives undue importance to a man’s colour and not this culture or intellect. The opening lines of the poem introduce the theme which rests on the irony of the word ‘indifferent’. The speaker wants an apartment and in this regard he calls the landlady to speak to her. He finds the ‘price reasonable’ and the ‘location indifferent’. ‘Indifferent’ here possibly indicated ‘impartial’ to race and colour.
The landlady emphatically says that she lives ‘off the premises’ – the apartment is a source of income for her. Everything seems alright and the speaker feels that he should tell the lady that he is an African. He does this to avoid ‘a wasted journey’ because he has an apprehension that when the lady sees him she might react negatively and reject him. Hence there is the need for this ‘self-confession’. He has not done any wrong that he should confess – yet he seems apologetic. The response to this self-confession is ironically a heavy silence – a pause – that transmuted ‘good breeding’ of the lady.
She is possibly caught unawares. The African is too shocked and hurt to react immediately and therefore, the heavy silence is broken with questions – ‘How dark? ’ and ’Are you light or very dark? ’ She wants to know the colour of his skin. This was an absurd notion followed by the whites; they thought that the lighter shades of the dark-skinned people were better than the darker ones. The speaker is suddenly conscious of the ‘stench of rancid breath’ of the public booth, its red colour, the ‘red pillar box’ and the red bus – all Red.
It is an evocative image that brings out the reality if the prejudice against him. The colour red here symbolises the extent of shock and anger of the African. He is the one looking for acceptance and belonging, and lodging. The colour might also refer to the branding of cattle, where each of them has a red mark on its body that makes it easier for its master to identify them. The man’s silence is an ‘ill-mannered silence’ eloquently interpreted as bad manners by the landlady. She politely tones down the sharpness of her question but nevertheless seeks to know ‘how dark’ he is.
The poet calling her ‘considerate’ is an irony because she does not rephrase her question sensitively and considerately, but it is considerate as so far she converted the phrases. ‘Revelation came’ when the African realised that the whites shall never regard the blacks as human beings as themselves. The African replies in a childish way, resigning himself and simplifying the choices of the landlady. He says, ‘You mean – like plain or milk chocolate? ’ All his anguish, pain and anger takes recourse and he forces to see himself through the eyes of the lady.
She answers him in infirmity and then, adjusting himself with the ‘wave-length’ of the white lady, apparently complying with her, he says, ‘West African sepia’ from ‘down in’ his ‘passport’. This is again an irony, as the African in reality faces rejection in Europe by the whites despite having a passport. This depicts that the colour of the skin is an absurdly important parameter for describing humans according to the whites. The answer of the African does not satisfy the lady and she feigns not to understand – ‘what’s that? ’ is her question.
He replies that it is similar to brunette and she immediately clarifies that that’s dark. Now the man has had enough of her insensitiveness. He disregards all constraints of formality and mocks her outright, saying that he isn’t all black, the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands are completely white, but he is foolish enough to sit on his bottom so it has been rubbed black due to friction. But as he senses that she is about to slam the receiver on him, he struggles one last time to make her reconsider, pleading her to at least see for herself; only to have the phone slammed on him.
Exasperated by these indifferences he is keen to tell her that but for his brown skin he is like any other normal human being – with palm of the hand, soles of his feet a ‘peroxide blond’. He realises that she wants the details to be able to categorise him. But the process angers him and provokes him to describe how the bottoms ‘raven black’ and asks her to judge for herself. The lady had already sent the receiver rearing on the thunderclap. She had disconnected. The telephone conversation has concluded but the man has to have the last word. He asks if she wouldn’t rather see for herself.