Sunday 18 August 2013

Telephone Conversation

I read Wole Soyinka’s poem, Telephone Conversation when I was fourteen. I liked it so much I made it the desktop background on my laptop. Each time I turned on this shiny new device, I would read the words, ‘The price seemed reasonable, location indifferent. The landlady swore she lived off premises.’ The poem struck me. Perhaps it was because I was in an English boarding school, discovering for the first time my ‘blackness.’

‘How dark?’ Soyinka ‘s landlady asked the character who I assumed was Soyinka himself. ‘Facially, I’m brunette.’ Facially I was... I had never stopped to consider. I was Nigerian. My classmates, sensitive to but ignorant of the nature of my dislocation, would sometimes say as if in reassurance, ‘I think black people are cool.’ Why are you telling me, I would wonder but never ask?

My spine weakened a little when I moved to England. Confident, boisterous, perhaps overbearing in Nigeria, I became unsure in England: unsure of my accent, unsure of the value of what I knew, flabbergasted by my ignorance of Jack Wills and lacrosse. Soyinka’s poem put some calcium back in my bones.  Every time my eyes wandered to the bottom of the screen and read, ‘Friction, caused- foolishly, madam- by sitting down, has turned my bottom raven black,’ I would shake with laughter, the punch line new again. A new country was to be met with this verve, this panache, this style, this trademark Soyinka wit. No apologies for where I was coming from. None at all.     

A young Soyinka, harassed by landladies.

Telephone Conversation 
Wole Soyinka 

            The price seemed reasonable, location
            Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
            Off premises. Nothing remained
            But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
5         “I hate a wasted journey—I am African.”
            Silence. Silenced transmission of
            Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
            Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
            Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was, foully.
10         “HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
            OR VERY DARK?” Button B. Button A. Stench
            Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
            Red booth. Red pillar-box. Red double-tiered
            Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
15         By ill-mannered silence, surrender
            Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.
            Considerate she was, varying the emphasis—
            “ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
            “You mean—like plain or milk chocolate?”
20         Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
            Impersonality. Rapidly, wavelength adjusted,
            I chose. “West African sepia”—and as an afterthought,
            “Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
            Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
25         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
30         Are a peroxide blonde. 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
35         See for yourself?”

1 comment:

  1. Lovely. This reminds of the thinking of CLR James, the renowned historian and black activist.Unlike many black intellectuals growing up in the colonies, James was positive about his education and did not reject or scorn the contributions of classical and Western culture to world civilisation. ‘I denounce European colonialism’, wrote CLR James, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ Today, James’ support for enlightenment universalism and defence of Western civilisation would probably be dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist, but are such criticisms valid? thought you may be interested in this – WORLDbytes is producing a documentary ‘Every Cook Can Govern: Documenting the life, impact & works of black activist and writer CLR James ‘. For more information visit


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