Telephone Conversation

Chapter Summary

The whole poem centres around the conversation between a house-hunting tenant and a landlady, who is completely disinterested in telling him about the place, rather more interested in the colour of the tenant. The tenant confesses to the landlady at the beginning of the poem itself about his skin colour as he didn’t want to waste any time after the deal about the rent is fixed. The landlady after hearing about his colour becomes silent and what the tenant feared happened. The whole conversation between the two of them is based on the colour of the speaker’s skin rather than the actual required discussion regarding the rent of the house and other facilities. The landlady starts ignorantly asking about stupid things like how dark or how fair his complexion is. The poet criticizes this racism committed by the landlady through his subtle humour. The poem ends with the tenant fed up with the queries of the landlady as she asks her to see it for herself.

State the Central Issue in the Poem

The poem circles around the issue of racism and how extreme it can be in certain cases. The speaker of the poem seems to be searching for a house to rent. He calls a landlady and warns her about the colour of his skin at the beginning of the conversation, after which there was complete silence in the phone call. The speaker could feel the landlady's good breeding even through that silence. She rudely asks him How Dark? Are you light or very dark? The absurdity of the whole situation startles the speaker, even if he expected this to happen beforehand.

There are intervals of silence in the interaction between the landlady and the prospective tenant. What are the reasons for this?

The tenant confessing about his skin colour took the landlady aback as she became silent, and the tenant could feel her sophisticated manners through that silence. The poet Wole Soyinka has used his typical sense of humour to portray the landlady in a sarcastic manner. Her getting silent during the conversation is also symbolic of her lack of knowledge regarding the African people.

How is colour highlighted in the poem and why? List all the words in the poem that suggest colour.

Colour has been highlighted in the poem to differentiate between the breeds of the landlady and the tenant. The landlady is superior due to her colour white, whereas the dark colour of the tenant makes him inferior. The gold-rolled Cigarette-holder is also symbolic of the posh upbringing of the landlady. The colour red on the other hand has been used to symbolise the struggle of the African populace, the history of a nation filled with blood and feud. The peroxide blonde feet of the tenant don’t suggest a fair complexion rather it is symbolic of how the colour of his feet has bleached off due to his constant struggle with life. The landlady asking the tenant if the colour of his skin is plain or milk chocolate is symbolic of her ignorance towards the African people.

Which are the lines in the poem that impressed you the most and why?

The lines of the poem I hate a wasted journey—I am African are enough to narrate the whole scenario of the poem. It is evident from these lines that the speaker or the tenant has looked for renting a house before or has been looking for it. It also becomes clear from his confession about his skin colour that he has been a victim of racism before, and probably has gone to rent the house but has been rejected due to his skin colour.

The most absurd part of this particular kind of racism is that the landlady or probably other owners before are always ignorant of whether their house is rentable or not, and they are least bothered about telling details about the place, rather they are more concerned about the tenant’s skin colour. Thus, the only crime committed by tenants like this one is that they are dark-skinned or African in this case.

You know what ‘hide-and-seek’ is. What would ‘hide-and-speak’ mean?

Hide and seek refers to a game where one person has to hide and the other person has to find them. Hide-and-speak on the other hand refers to the concealing of facts that the tenant and other people like him have to do while talking with a fair-skinned person who is supposed to be well-bred. Unlike the dark-skinned people who have been always stereotyped as people who give off a stench of rancid breath.

Certain words in the poem are in capital letters—why?

Lines like ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK? Or THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT? are written in capital letters as they convey the major theme of the poem that is racism. The poet uses this technique especially on the lines of the landlady to show her ignorance, lack of knowledge and complete inhuman nature. As a landlady, she should be comforting and amiable, but she cares more about skin colour than anything.

Why do you think that the poet has chosen the title ‘Telephone Conversation’?

The title of the poem Telephone Conversation is appropriate as the whole conversation happens through a phone call. Another great title for the poem could have been Ignorance as it is what has led African society to face racism in European and American countries. The world has always been centred on European traditions and standards, which have made their populace, grow ignorant of the rest of the world. This has led to racism and made it one of the most disgusting global problems.


Q1. What does stench of rancid breath symbolise?

Ans. The word rancid is usually used to point out a disagreeable or offensive matter. It has been used in the poem to satirize the voice of the landlady, which is unpleasant.

Q2. What are the three things of red colour mentioned in the poem?

Ans. The three red things that are mentioned in the poem are a red booth, a red pillar-box and a Red double-tiered Omnibus squelching tar. The colour red can be symbolized as the struggle that the Africans have to go through or have been through.

Q3. What does the phrase spectroscopic flight of fancy?

Ans. The phenomenon of dispersion of light into seven colours is often described by the term spectroscopic flight of fancy. The phrase has been linked by the poet to the separated thoughts and queries of the landlady after she gets to know the tenant’s skin colour.