Set in the 1960s, written in the first person narrative manner, the poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka is a poetic satire against the widespread racism in the modern Western society. As a student from Nigeria, the poet had encountered firsthand such parochial attitude, and had learnt to take it in his stride, the poem is thus influenced by his personal experience. The poem is about a telephone conversation in England between the poet, seeking to rent a house and an English landlady who completely changes her attitude towards him after he reveals his identity as a black African. The motif of a microcosmic telephone conversation, therefore, is employed by the poet to apply to a much broader, macrocosmic level where racial bigotry is ridiculed in a contest of human intelligence, highlighting the poet’s witticism as well as his ingenious sense of humour.
As the title reveals, two people are talking on the phone, a man looking for accommodation speaking with a prospective landlady. The beginning of the poem is on a serene note, there is no indication of the tension that follows later. The man is searching for a house and the landlady has named a price. As the poet has no locational preference, he finds the rent asked, quite reasonable. He could enjoy his privacy since the landlady does not live under the same roof. The African man is ready to accept the offer, but maybe there has been a similar incident in his past, for he stops and admits to her that he is black, saying he prefers not to waste the time travelling there if she’s going to refuse him on that ground. The poet’s use of the word “confession” to describe an announcement of his ethnic identity is sarcastic, being an African seems to be a sin which he had committed at birth, and which he needed to atone for throughout his life. In the ensuing silence, his prior experience of racism makes him intuitively feel that the lady’s good-breeding was... [continues]
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