The Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

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About this essay

The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka (born 1935) was one of the few African writers to denounce the slogan of Negritude as a tool of autocracy. He also was the first black African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wole Soyinka was born July 13, 1934 in Abeokuta a village on the banks of the River Ogun in the western area of Nigeria. His mother was a Christian convert so devout that he nicknamed her “Wild Christian” and he father was the scholarly headmaster of a Christian primary school whom he nicknamed “Essay”–a play on his occupation and his initials S.


Soyinka was educated through the secondary level in Ibadan and later attended University College, Ibadan, and the University of Leeds, from which he graduated with honors. He worked for a brief period at the Royal Court Theatre in London before returning to Nigeria in 1960. His play, “The Invention” was staged in 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre. At that time his only published works were poems such as “The Immigrant” and “My Next Door Neighbour,” which appeared in the magazine Black Orpheus.

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The worsening political situation in Nigeria was reflected in Soyinka’s theme for Kongi’s Harvest, first performed at the Dakar Festival of Negro Arts in 1965. The theme was the establishment of a dictatorship in an African state; and the venal politician, the uncommitted, corrupt traditional ruler, and the ruthlessness of a man driven toward power were all displayed. In Idanre and Other Poems, published in 1967, Soyinka ceased being a satirist and became a gloomy visionary.

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The title poem, reciting a creation myth, stressed the symbols of fire, iron, and blood, which were central to the poet’s view of the modern African world. Soyinka became a vocal critic of Negritude, accusing politicians of using it as a mask for autocracy.

His increasing use of polemic against social injustice and his demands for freedom coincided with the military takeover in Nigeria and the later drift toward civil war. Soyinka was arrested by the Nigerian government in October 1967, was accused of spying for Biafra, and was kept in detention in the north for two years, after which he returned to his position as head of the drama department at Ibadan. Much of his creative attention following his release went into filming Kongi’s Harvest, in which he also played the leading role. Soyinka’s Nigeria was a country in transition, attempting to mold itself out of a variety of tribal cultures and a turbulent European colonization. Soyinka did not romanticize his native land, nor was he willing to see African culture as a flat symbol of primitiveness. He was as willing to charge Nigerian politicians and bureaucrats with barbarity and corruption as he was to condemn the greed and materialism of the west.

These attitudes were even more prevalent after his second incarceration on the trumped up spying charges. His work took on a darker and angrier tone. When he was released from prison in 1969, Soyinka left Nigeria and did not return until the government changed in 1975. Soyinka’s prison diary, published in 1972 The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka was a fragmented and grim account of the days he spent incarcerated, often in chains. Along with his verses that captured the essence of his prison experience, The Man Died provided invaluable context for Soyinka’s subsequent imagery in his works. Soyinka’s post-prison works striked readers as more angry and despairing than his earlier ones. The play Madmen and Specialists was about a young doctor who returned from war trained in the ways of torture and practices his new skills on his seemingly mad old father.

Charles Larson in New York Times Review of Books called the play “a product of those months Soyinka spent in prison, in solitary confinement, as a political prisoner. It is, not surprisingly, the most brutal social criticism he has ever published.” Yet not all his post prison works were filled with despair. Ake: The Years of Childhood and its prequel Isara: A Voyage around Essay were beautiful memoirs of both his own childhood with its strong Yoruba background and his father’s youth in a changing Nigeria. Isara, published in 1988 after his father’s death, reconstructed his father’s divided life and tried to reconcile two conflicting cultures–African and Western-that trapped him between.

In 1986 Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in recognition of his accomplishments. The prize committee recognized him for his commitment to render the full complexity of his African culture In addition to his literary output, Soyinka had produced two essay collections that define his literary philosophy Myth Literature and the African World (1976) and Art Dialog and Outrage (1991, 1994) in which Soyinka asserted that critics must approach African literature on its own terms rather than by standards established in western cultures. African literature was not monolithic and needs to be seen as a variety of voices, not merely one speaker. In The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (1996), Soyinka looked at Nigeria’s dictatorship and questions the corrupt government, the ideas of nationalism, and international intervention.

The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness (1998), Soyinka’s sequel to The Open Sore, considered the whole of Africa and considers how there can be reconciliation between victims and oppressors. In 2001, the University Press of Mississippi published Conversations with Wole Soyinka In 1998, Soyinka ended a four-year self-imposed exile from Nigeria. His exile can be traced back to 1993, when a democratically elected government was to have assumed power.

Instead, General Ibrahim Babangida, who had ruled the nation for eight years, prohibited the publication of the voting results and installed his deputy, General Sani Abacha, as head of the Nigerian state. Soyinka, along with other pro-democracy activists, was charged with treason for his criticism of the military regime. Faced with a death sentence, Soyinka went into exile in 1994, during which time he traveled and lectured in Europe and the United States. Following the death of Abacha, who held control for five years, the new government, led by General Abdulsalem Abubakar, released numerous political prisoners and promised to hold civilian elections. Soyinka’s return to his homeland renewed hope for a democratic Nigerian state.

Prejudice in Telephone Conversation and Dinner Guest-Me:

In ‘Telephone Conversation’ and ‘Dinner Guest-Me’ each poet uses their poetry as a means of confronting and challenging prejudice. In ‘Telephone Conversation’ by Wole Soyinka, a phone conversation takes place between an African man and a very artificial lady about renting out a room. When the lady finds out he is African she becomes very prejudiced and racist towards him. Similarly ‘Dinner Guest-Me’ by Langston Hughes is about a black man going to a dinner party where he is the only coloured person there, like he is the ‘token black.’

Anger and a sense of humour are shown in both the poems. In ‘Telephone Conversation’, the African man is angry at the “peroxide blond” and is disgusted at her for being so rude and racist towards him, “HOW DARK? ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?” The capital letters emphasise the loudness in her voice, whereas, in Langston Hughes poem the other dinner guests are not being prejudiced to the only black dinner guest directly. Although they would ask him “the usual questions that affected him, it is full of prejudices. Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is an eloquent exchange of dialogue between a dark West African man and his British landlady that inexorably verges on the question of apartheid.

The poet makes use of the most articulate means to air his views, through that of a telephone conversation, where there is instant and natural give-and-take. It exhibits a one-to-one correspondence between the two. The interaction between a coloured and a white individual at once assumes universal overtones. At the outset, the poet says that the price seemed reasonable and the location ‘indifferent’. Note that as a word, even though it denotes being ‘unbiased’, it is a word with negative connotations. However, as we come across the Landlady’s biased nature, the word ‘indifferent’ gains positive overtones; it is better than being impartial.

The lady swears that she lived ‘off premises’. Nevertheless, the very aspect of his colour poses a problem to her, far from her promise to remain aloof. Nothing remains for the poet, he says, but confession. It gives a picture of him sitting in a confessional, when he hasn’t committed any crime. His crime is his colour; his remorse is solutionless. He tells the lady that he hates a wasted journey. Perhaps his words connote more than he literally signifies. The poet seems to be tired of his life conditioned by racist prejudices. As he mentions that he is a West African, the lady is crammed with silence, but a silence that speaks volumes.

A telephone is an instrument that primarily transmits voices; here it becomes a medium for silence also. The so-called civilized world has these silent, powerful issues that need to be voiced. Here, the silence echoes. It is a silence that is the consequence of her sophisticated upbringing. However, her prejudices transcend her to primitivism living in the superstitious narrow-mindedness of caste and colour. When the voice finally came, it was ‘lip-stick coated’, well made-up and diplomatic to suit an affected atmosphere. The inevitable question finally comes across: “Are you dark? Or very light?” The poet views it as button B or Button A. The question places two alternatives before him: dark or light, the truth or lies. The first option would obviously shut off all doors to him. The term Button B also is the button in the public telephone box to get the money back.

Button A is the one to connect the call. The poet first ponders on the Button B to get out of his predicament. He then realizes that escapism is not the solution, and decides to face the situation. The words: “Stench /Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak” signify the claustrophobic nature of the questions rather than the atmosphere (i.e., inside the telephone box). The colour ‘red’ in “Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered” forebode caution. The questions were too naked to be true. The speaker at last brings himself to believe them. His response is very witty: “You mean-like plain or milk chocolate?” This is the most apt response as dark chocolate is certainly more tempting than plain chocolate.

Her disinterested approval of the question was like that of a clinical doctor made immune to human emotions through experience. Human pain and misery has a saturation point; after a certain point people tend to joke at their own agony. As the saying goes: Be a God, and laugh at Yourself. The speaker therefore begins enjoying the situation and confuses the lady on the other side. He asserts: “‘West African sepia’-and as an afterthought ‘Down in my passport.’”, to further confuse her. 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?” The last lines verge on vulgarity, but simply out of outrage. The mixed feelings, the random and broken sentences, the lack of coherence is speech, the question-answer mode are all typical of a telephone conversation that reverberates more than it sounds. The poem is truly amazing.

The sarcastic dialogue adds humour to a subject that is otherwise not. The way he presents the truth of racial discrimination in the name of skin colour, using humour tells the greatness of the poet and his wonderful style. It’s surely a nice poem on racism supported by the vivid picture that Wole Soyinka creates in the readers’ minds by presenting his poem in a free verse conversation style. It is a nice approach in illustrating the racism in the Old English times. Theme:

“Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka is a poem that’s title is very casual and straight forward. The poem’s title shows the reader that what they are meant to read is realistic and free flowing.

Like most poems there is a general theme that is carried on from start to end. The poem “Telephone Conversation” has two main obvious themes; these are racism and the lack of education and understanding that some people may have. As the reader reads through the play they become aware that the persona is African and therefore has a darker skin tone than white skinned people.

The poet has given the persona as well as the landlady different forms of speech. The persona appears to speak a little more formally than the landlady and this could perhaps be to lack of education and understanding towards the landlady or even that she feels the persona is unclear of the English language. The persona tends to be more formal and uses more official ways of speaking.

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The Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka. (2017, Feb 17). Retrieved from

The Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka
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