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Summary of Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

Written in first person narrative, Summary of Telephone conversation by Wole Soyinka draws upon an unseen picture of humanity where it projects the innate difference that resides between individuals. Depicted through the conversation of a white lady and an African man, the poem is a mighty comment on racism coupled with prejudices that still exist like a millstone. The idea of Telephone conversation is how human beings are inclined to focus and sort out issues that are based on individual differences which seldom give us a chance to look into our souls and determine where and how far we have deteriorated within us.

It’s not difficult for us to determine and differentiate between anything that is good or bad, or black and white, or old and young. The summary of Telephone conversation by Wole Soyinka is a blatant example how a simple communication is vehemently affected as we focus too seriously upon our recognizable differences; resistance is created to stop all and everything that is needed to form a bond and act as a lubricant between human beings. Also, important in this case is to note how Wole Soyinka uses words dipped in racism to create impact that turns out to be highly detrimental to the conversation.

 About the Author

Akinwande Oluwole “Wole” Soyinka (born 13 July 1934) is one of the most sought after Nigerian writers and the first person in Africa and the diaspora to be honored with a Nobel Prize in Literature (1986).


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It was during the reign of General Sani Abacha (1993–98), when Soyinka had escaped from Nigeria via the “Nadeco Route” on a motorcycle. Abacha had also proclaimed a death sentence against him “in absentia”.

Summary of  Telephone conversation

In the summary of Telephone conversation by Wole Soyinka, the poet talks about two people on the phone and the story goes on to narrate how the African man is looking for a house and the land lady has proposed a considerable price for the same. The poem strikes a positive note as the man gets to know that his privacy won’t be hampered as the landlady doesn’t stay on the premises. The African man is happy to know that and just before he makes up his mind to consider the offer, he drops in to mention that he is black. On the other end of the line, there was nothing but silence which the African man takes it to be an impolite gesture of refusal.

However, the silence is soon broken as the landlady starts to speak again asking him to explain exactly how dark he is. First, the man think that he might have misheard the question but when the landlady repeats, he understands that this is something very important for her to know before she allows him to rent her house. This is something that came out entirely devastating for the African man and for a moment he felt disgusted with the question and fancies himself to be a machine, like the phone and that he has been reduced to being a button on the phone. He could also smell the foul from her words and he sees “red’ everywhere all around.

The idea of Telephone conversation is to depict how brutal it can be for a man who is subjected to racial discrimination. Thoughts of racism and pre-notions come blended with an element of irony that takes over the theme of “Telephone conversation”. The Afro-American man is reduced to shame by the sudden silence from the other side and he gets into a state of make belief where he sarcastically thinks that the lady broke her silence and gave him option to choose and define ‘how dark” he is. “Like chocolate, or dark or light?” Then, he goes on to answer that he is defined as “West African sepia” in his passport. The lady not knowing how dark it could be didn’t want to embarrass the man further by resorting to silence. So, she asks him to define what he means. The man replies, that it is almost similar to being a brunette but a dark brunette.

All this while, the man has been holding on to codes of formality which breaks loose at the landlady’s insensitiveness. The African man now shouts out loud saying that he is black but he is not that black for anyone to be put to shame. He also says that the soles of his feet and the palms of his hand are all white but he is a fool that he sits on his rear which has turned black due to friction. He knows that the landlady will never be convinced with his black complexion and he senses that she might slam down the receiver on him. At such a crucial juncture, he makes a desperate and silly attempt to plead her to come and take a good look at him but couldn’t help the situation from getting worse. Finally, the landlady slams down the receiver on his face.

Theme of Telephone conversation

The theme of Telephone conversation rests upon the conflict between the protagonist and the absurdity of racism that makes the antagonist take a negative stance towards him. The struggle begins with the protagonist’s confession of being an African; a black man which sparks up the notions of racism inside the landlady who denies renting him the house. The fear of being judged on the merit of being a black man, projects a heavily corrupt image of the society where individuality is at stake.

 

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Abhishek is a marketing research and social media consultant who developed a keen interest in blogging. He can be contacted at dey.abhishek99@gmail.com

14 Comments
  1. Reply
    lasantha August 29, 2015 at 4:52 pm

    this is very helpful give a chance to ask questions

    • Reply
      noman July 19, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      This is really very useful

  2. Reply
    Surath January 18, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    It was indeed very helpful!

  3. Reply
    Nimakshi March 18, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Yup… It really helps me

  4. Reply
    ruk April 23, 2016 at 4:09 am

    Thnk u

  5. Reply
    mansha May 9, 2016 at 7:00 am

    Plz convert this conversation in Hindi also bcaz those student english we’re week & still they have hounrs theycn easily understand

  6. Reply
    Hiran May 30, 2016 at 3:42 am

    Excellent explanation . Really nice

    • Reply
      kaaralan June 24, 2016 at 6:14 am

      It’s really nice to me to learn the theme of poem.thank you for this summary.

  7. Reply
    Abhishek August 3, 2016 at 6:10 am

    Thanks to all of you guys for the feedback! Glad you liked the summary!

  8. Reply
    Purva Gole August 22, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    Awesome ….really helpful!

  9. Reply
    Johannes March 24, 2017 at 11:52 am

    This analysis on Wole Soyinka’s poem is not only inaccurate but extremely misleading. Much of what has been written is total gibberish. It is plain wrong and should not be used as a guide to the true meaning of the poem. If this article in read in preparation for an exam you will FAIL. I will end this with a word of caution; just because long impressive words are used does not mean that the writer has truly understood the subject he or she is addressing. This should be taken as a constructive criticism. Thank you.

  10. Reply
    Risha Chakma March 30, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    It is really helpful to me, the words are simple and easy to learn. Thank you so much for the summary.😊

  11. Reply
    Deepak March 31, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Soyinka’s technique in Telephone Conversation is to allow the bantering surface tone to lightly spread over the graver implications underneath.

    Without a physical interface, through something as impersonal as the telephone, the speaker is able to strip a faceless landlady of all hypocrisy inculcated by “good breeding”. At the same time, his own feelings of shame, even humiliation are exposed although he covers them up with his wit, his tremendous command over language and imagery and even manages to strike a blow at the lady’s imagined sense of propriety by talking of his “raven black” bottom.

    He begins in a seemingly objective, levelheaded way, judging the location and price of the property. The advantage was that the landlady said she stayed off the premises. In other words, she would not be there to interfere with or comment upon the author’s use of the property. So the speaker being a self-respecting man, thought he would let her know he was African. He knows he is living in a racially conscious society where colour prejudice is rampant. As is mentioned earlier in the material black-white confrontation in the west has proved to be the bitterest, most tortuous and most prolonged racial confrontation. And the most visible physical marker of this difference is colour. And colour is what almost all black writing is about. The speaker here is a victim because of his colour. Colour is the man, so to say for the white landlady. His humiliation has its origin in his being a black (no matter light or dark). When he says, “I hate a wasted journey”, he means that he doesn’t wish to wait till the last moment for her to see that he is African and then find excuses for sending him away. His announcement is met with silence, and silence, they say, can speak louder than words. That her genteel status had caused her silence is powerfully conveyed by the speaker’s observation that silence can be a substitute for an unpleasant or unpremeditated response -“silenced transmission of pressurized good breeding”. When she does speak, she wishes to know how dark he is or rather, how light complexioned or how dark.

    The idea of the colour of one’s skin being put into a slot A or B or whatever robs one of the feeling of the richness of human personality. In these days of power dressing and make-up, we are all aware of the variety of inputs that make one’s skin colour and tone what it is. In fact, it might be difficult to find two equally, identically, fair or dark persons. The effacement of personality is emphasized further by the phrase, “hide and speak”, which is exactly what a telephone user does. He or she is not visible to the listener. And in the case of a public telephone booth, it is literally a cabin out of which one talks. The repeated use of “red” is significant. It could refer to anger or embarrassment.

    But don’t forget that the lady is upper class. After the initial silence, she speaks; her query is clinical and insensitive. And the speaker’s response, describing his skin colour as West Africa Sepia, silences her for the second time. This time he imagines that she is mentally scanning the entire range of possible human complexions. Spectroscopic is derived from spectrum meaning range. We know that even among fair people and among the blacks there are varied shades of complexion. The lighter the complexion, the better a coloured person feels. And when the white woman can’t seem to locate “West Africa Sepia” she has to ask.

    Of course, the poet’s outburst is stunning and has a sardonic humour to it. Talking of his face, his palms the soles of his feet, he goes on to say that his bottom is “raven black”. Of course she slams the receiver. The poet can almost feel it about his ears and concludes with a befittingly insulting “wouldn’t you rather/ See for yourself.”

  12. Reply
    Ajith May 23, 2017 at 10:46 pm

    Thank you….It was helpful

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