"Telephone Conversation" by Wole Soyinka


For this poem we are practicing

- Analyzing the Author's Argument

Analyzing the Author's Argument

To understand the author's argument, we can pose questions that help us understand what the author is communicating. With poetry, we frequently ask questions about style as well as content to help flesh out what the author is trying to do.

As we discussed the poem in class, I suggested paying attention to the following questions:

1. Why does Soyinka use a fragmented and awkward syntax in the poem?

2. Why does Soyinka put the woman's words "LIGHT OR DARK" in capitals throughout the poem?

3. What is the significance of the last line, where the narrator asks the rhetorical question: "Wouldn't you like to see for yourself?"

As we work to answer these questions, we notice ideas behind the choices the author makes.

In "Telephone Conversation", we see the message that racism, or seeing people according to a limiting perspective of their color, degrades individuals and breaks down relationship between people.

The fragmented and awkward syntax gives an impression of the interaction. We as readers work to decode the meaning of the lines reflecting their conversation.

Just as the sentences are stilted, we get the impression of stilted-ness and lack of connection between the narrator and the woman. The conversation has been made awkward by the introduction of the race question. The narrator and the woman are not relating to each other. They are reduced to trying to figure each other out, or decode each other's meaning.

The author's special emphasis of the woman's statements about color bring into stark relief (literally with the type script) the most important words in the conversation. Soyinka shows us that the essence of the conversation is her concern about the narrator being either "LIGHT" or "DARK". This is what the conversation boils down to, and by extension their relationship boils down to in the end.

The final question, we assume is rhetorical given the tone of the conversation. However, it poses the essential question of the poem, which is why the woman is interested in race. The truth is, as Soyinka shows with the last line, that she is not interested in seeing the narrator as a whole person, but instead has reduced or degraded him/he to having no identity out of a single descriptor. This shows the true evil of racism in reducing a person to nothing but a single word descriptor that places him/her either in or out of acceptance.

Here is a Carnegie Council Video of Soyinka speaking about Power and Democracy in Nigeria.

Here is the program Conversations with History interviewing Soyinka at our own UCBerkeley.

Wole Soyinka Study Guide

Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman (2003)

Wole Soyinka (born Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka in 1934) is Africa's most distinguished playwright, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. A Yoruba, he studied first at the University College of Ibadan, then at Leeds University in England, where he came under the influence of the brilliant Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight. The fifties were a period of great experimentation in the theater, both in France and England, and Soyinka was involved with various productions in Great Britain before returning to Nigeria, having been commissioned to write a play to celebrate that nation's independence in 1960 (A Dance of the Forests). It was a lyrical blend of Western experimentalism and African folk tradition, reflecting a highly original approach to drama. He has always emphasized his African roots, dubbing his early theater troupe "Masks," to acknowledge the role Yoruba pageantry has played in his work.

From the beginning he was a political figure, During the Nigerian Civil War he was not sufficiently anti-Biafran to suit the government and was put into solitary confinement for two years, being released only after an intense international campaign. This experience is movingly recounted in his book, A Man Died. He has written many plays, both for the theater and for radio production, poetry, and prose fiction. He was granted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. His political stands earned him--like most other prominent Nigerian writers--exile from his homeland for a number of years.

He is also a vigorous critic of contemporary literature and has engaged in heated debates with other Africans who have accused him of writing in an obscure idiom that owes more to European traditions than Nigerian ones.