Home > 2010, 21st Century, Ebodé Eugène, French Literature, History of the USA, Novel, TBR20 > The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé – 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé – 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé (2013) Original French title: La Rose dans le bus jaune. Not available in English.

In March, Télérama published an article about Memphis, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It reminded me that I still had The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé on the shelf. Ebodé is a French-Cameroonian writer. He was born in 1962 in Douala, Cameroon and emigrated in France in 1982. The Rose in the Yellow Bus is a novel where Rosa Parks narrates her life, beginning with the boycott of the public buses in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955. As we all know, segregation was the rule then, thanks to the Jim Crow laws; Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man in a public bus. She was arrested by the police. She was already an active militant for the civil rights with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). They decided to use her example to go to court against the Jim Crow Laws and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott , a movement that was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement.

As a child, I had a subscription to a magazine called Astrapi, published by the Christian oriented publisher Bayard Presse. (It still exists) Astrapi used to publish the life of famous people in comic strips, from Sister Emmanuelle to Marilyn Monroe. I remember reading about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was in primary school and I remember vividly this comic strips: I was impressed by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the participants to the boycott and I was horrified by the concept of segregation. No wonder Ebodé’s book caught my eye when I saw it in a bookshop.

But back to the novel. I’d say it’s good but flawed. It was a difficult mission from the start because it deals with history. Ebodé made three creative decisions to tell this story.

First, Rosa Parks is the narrator, which means that famous leaders like Martin Luther King are a bit in the shadow. It’s an important choice because we focus on the reasons for the boycott and forget the famous leaders. The movement aimed at helping people’s everyday life, to ensure that they had the rights they deserved as American citizens. Rosa Parks shows that this boycott wouldn’t have been a success without a massive participation of the black population. He needed to write from the perspective of someone who had experienced life among the working class.

Second, Ebodé created the character of Douglas White Junior, the white man Rosa Parks was summoned to leave her seat for. Ebodé made him a man with white skin but black origins. One of his ancestors was raped by her owner and his white genes reappeared in Douglas. He’s a complex character, hiding in a white neighborhood, feeling like a fraud among his white neighbors and an outsider in the black community. He’s in an absurd position that stems out of the absurd Jim Crow laws. The awakening of Douglas White is an interesting part of the novel even if I don’t think he was a likeable character.

And third, Ebodé added an African character into the mix. He’s named Manga Bell, a Cameroonian surname, a way for the writer to link his novel to his own history. Manga Bell is the link between Africa and the African-American community. He’s by their side as a representative of their African cousins but also as a reminder that African leaders sold their population to slave traders.

These two fictional characters gave new dimensions to the story, they allowed Ebodé to include these points of views in the story.

In my opinion the novel is flawed because it’s unbalanced. It took Ebodé a long time to introduce Rosa Parks, her husband and mother, her everyday life and to describe the starting point of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book is 365 pages long and we are page 235 when the first day of the boycott is over. It was interesting but I would have liked more details about the rest of the fight, the victory and the court battles. The boycott lasted 381 days! The 130 remaining pages cover the boycott from day 2 till the end and Rosa Parks’s life until she’s 81.

The other flaw is that Rosa Parks doesn’t sound American. The book is written in French and she should sound like she was translated from the American. For example, she relates how embarrassed she was to be the center of attention. Je rougissais comme un piment d’Espelette (I blushed and was as red an Espelette chili) I doubt that an American woman would use the Espelette chili comparison since it’s a chili from the South West of France. She’d say something like as red as a beetroot or in French rouge comme une tomate.

Other French expression play strange tricks to the author. At a Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meeting, someone mutters about Martin Luther King who was only 26 at the time: “Que veut donc nous imposer ce petit blanc-bec venu d’Atlanta?”. In English it becomes something like “What does this little greenhorn from Atlanta want to push us to do?” Except that in French, greenhorn is blanc-bec or literally white-beak, which is kind of ironic when talking about a black man.

Here’s another example: Ces gens-là ne comprennent que les coups de bâton et rien d’autre. A propos de bâton, tenez, à Baton Rouge… (p240) It’s impossible to translate into English because there’s a play-on-word on coup de bâton (blow with a stick) and the city of Baton Rouge, which means Red Stick for a French. It’s not something an American writer would write.

Comparisons, puns and metaphors betray the writer’s origin and cultural references. I’d already noticed that in Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. It’s something a writer should take into account when editing their novel. Perhaps I hear it because I switch from the French to the English language all the time and read American lit in translation. It annoyed me a bit, just as it annoyed me that in 1956, Douglas White eats some coussins de Lyon, sweets that come from Lyon but where invented in…1960. I suppose that it bothered me but other French readers might not mind.

What it worth reading? Yes. Definitely. It was interesting to see the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the people and the organization that was behind it. It’s important to read these books to remember where we come from and where we could go back to if we don’t pay enough attention to all the supremacist and extreme right movements that seem to resuscitate these last years.

It’s important to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and this is why this billet is published today. There’s an exhibition about him at the Lyon Public Library. I plan on taking my children there. Sometimes different unconnected events occur at the same time and happen to be related. I was reading Ebodé, spending time with Rosa Parks when Linda Brown, the little girl of the Brown vs Board of Education died on March 25th, 2018. It made the headlines on the radio here. Then The Origin of Others, a collection of conferences by Toni Morrison about racism was published in French. I read it right away. Meanwhile I had ordered The Kites by Romain Gary from Amazon US and decided to spread shipping costs and also bought Go Tell it to the Mountain by James Baldwin. All these unrelated and small events push the same theme in the forefront, demanding my attention. I hope I’ll have time to read the Baldwin soon. Some battles I thought were won seem to be coming back; the victories were fragile and we need to protect them.

  1. April 4, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    Today definitely needs to be marked – I’ve been reading King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Powerful stuff.

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  2. Dorothy Willis
    April 4, 2018 at 10:59 pm

    I was at home with my two young daughters the day MLK was murdered. My husband was at work in downtown Atlanta. He called, and there was a frantic tone to his voice. White people were terrified of the reaction black people would have to this event. I don’t recall that Atlanta erupted as expected. I liked the title of this book. But remembering that time is painful and it saddens me that we still have so far to go.

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    • April 5, 2018 at 1:20 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I can only imagine the stupor after his death was announced. I understand you husband’s fear but it would have been disrespectful to Martin Luther King’s non violent approach to start riots after his death.

      I read an article in the New Yorker yesterday and it said that the question of limiting the access to fire arms was already debated after King’s death. 50 years later, weapons have spread like an uncontrolable herpes and a black man just got killed from holding a phone to his ear.
      So the two topics are unexpectedly linked and seen from this side of the Atlantic, this passion for war weapons is incomprehensible.

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  3. April 5, 2018 at 5:35 am

    I always have a problem reading fiction about real people.

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    • April 5, 2018 at 1:21 pm

      I know, it’s tricky. I did Google the two imaginary characters, just to be sure. At least now we have easy ways to check out details.
      It still give access to history to people who, like me, are terrible at reading non fiction.

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  4. April 5, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    How did you feel about a guy writing Parks’ story in the first person? Would you have felt differently if the author was a white guy? a white woman? It bothers me tremendously. I like what you say about the writing in French inadequately representing idiomatic American English. You are often very perceptive about language. Yes it’s an important anniversary, although I think MLK is a ‘safe’ person to like compared with Malcolm X for example. I greatly admire Rosa Parks and have a dim memory of hearing her speak (on radio). Wikipedia tells me there is a recorded 1956 interview so that may have been it.

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    • April 5, 2018 at 9:55 pm

      I wasn’t bothered by the fact that the writer was a black man and that he spoke at the first person as a woman. She felt right as a woman but not as an American.
      I don’t think I would have felt differently if the writer had been white unless his or her writing had felt odd.

      I agree with you, Martin Luther King is a lot less controversial than Malcolm X but I’m a firm believer that violence doesn’t solve anything. It just brings more violence.

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  5. April 8, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    It does sound like an interesting if flawed book, Emma. Thank you for marking the occasion and writing about it. Your last line is so true, and I couldn’t have put it any better.

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    • April 8, 2018 at 10:44 pm

      See, flawed books are worth reading as well.

      About the last sentence. I was fed up with books about WWII and reading about the Shoah. But I’m changing my mind with what’s happening in the West. We need reminders and fiction books can be a good way to convey the horror, put the event at human scale and humanize what would only be cold statistics.

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