accessible language practice

[Edit: After the great comments I’ve gotten, I think it’s important for me to specify what my goals were in terms of accessibility in writing this, since there are a lot of different pieces that go into language accessibility. I basically am good with two kinds of language: very concrete sensory language, and academic jargon that I am very familiar with (and pop culture references…). I am very, very bad at being general, being concise, or being not-conversational. I am working hard to be better at those kinds of talking, but that’s honestly an access issue for me as well, so I hadn’t considered not-conversational-ness or not-concreteness to be goals when writing this. I apologize for my ignorance concerning the nuances of accessibility beyond my own needs, and I hope that for people with needs more like my own (i.e. concreteness and conversationality) this will be engaging! I am obviously still looking for further comment/advice on other accessibility problems, but wanted to clarify the context of my writing this. Thanks!]

i have to write a paper, and i am nervous about it. and so i figured i’d try and write parts of it other places first, because the alternative formats don’t make me as nervous as trying to “write a paper” big-time-style. and i also want to practice writing things in accessible/comprehensible ways, even when they’re complicated and academic or whatever.

in this essay, i want to discuss a book called “the round house” by louise erdrich, that’s about a family living on a ojibwe reservation in north dakota. and i’m writing about how the different ghosts that appear in this book are not like lots of ghosts that appear in other books about native/indigenous peoples. i’m also writing about how louise erdrich writes about ghosts as a way of talking about white people and how they oppress and take power away from native peoples legally and socially.

the ghosts in this book are not the “ghosts of the ancestors” or “ghosts of the natives” which is how they normally appear in lots of books about native people. and in those other books, these “ghosts of natives/ancestors” are a way of talking about native peoples like they’re disappearing, or all dead already, or how their traditions no longer exist. and that isn’t true; native people do still exist, and even though they have endured a lot of hardship, and are still having to endure bad stuff, they still count as native people, and change hasn’t made their traditions all no longer count as traditions.

in erdrich’s book, the “ghosts” that appear are usually white people ghosts. which is ironic because white people=kind of like ghosts literally (white as a ghost), and the ghosts are confusing and often make people feel uncomfortable. these ghosts are not the kind of ghosts where people can easily understand where they came from, or what they’re trying to do or say. but they also don’t go away. they’re just there. specifically, one ghost appears a lot to the main character and other people, and is eventually identified as the ghost-figure of a white policeman. the people in the book are unsure of what to make of this ghost, even before they know it’s a policeman ghost. when they talk to their grandfather about the ghost, he says it is probably someone unintentionally throwing their spirit at them (instead of it being the spirit of a person that’s dead) because they want to help them. which makes sense, because they are in the middle of a mystery/crime case and trying to figure out who did it–the white policeman ghost is probably showing up because white police are kind of trying to help with this case on the reservation.

but this ghost policeman is a really good picture of how white police and white lawyers and politicians deal with things on native reservations in real life. the ghost policeman is always there, watching, appearing, creeping people out. but he doesn’t actually do anything–he’s a friggin’ ghost. and the whole time that the people on the reservation are trying to deal with this really terrible crime, and are struggling to figure out what happened, the ghost is just like…being a ghost. the real “policeman” that the ghost comes from doesn’t show up until the end, after all the bad shit has happened, and after they’ve already had to deal with the bad guy on their own. just like the ghost, a lot of the legal and political systems that white people/federal governments control don’t really try to help and do concrete things on the reservation, even when bad crimes are committed, or when people really need help. but they’re always there, and whenever they feel like taking over or showing up, they just do–they’re always watching, but they don’t really help out at all. like the ghost.

there’s another example of how the ghosts are white people ghosts. except in this example, it’s not a ghost that is a ghost of a white person, it’s a white person who isn’t a ghost, but kind of acts like one. the main events that happen in the book are that joe’s (the main character’s), mother gets violently raped, and then afterwards, they try and help her recover, and figure out who did it, because she says she doesn’t remember/didn’t know the man who did it. even when they do find out who committed the crime, they are unable to prosecute him, because they have no evidence that tells them whose land the crime was committed on–the rapist specifically knew that if he committed the crime in a specific area, it would be really hard to figure out afterwards if it happened on native/reservation land, or on U.S. government land, or on private white citizen’s land. and since laws prevent native governments in the U.S. from prosecuting crimes committed by white people even on native land, the rapist can basically just slip out of any legal charges the native lawyers come up with. in this way, he’s a lot like a ghost, because he’s almost untouchable or un-catchable, even though he moves in and out of the reservation land as he pleases.

but i think that the most important and interesting part of all this has to do with how the different ghostly characters/images are a way of showing how white/colonial legal and political systems are built to keep power for themselves and make sure that native/indigenous legal and political systems don’t have very much power at all. many white authors and other non-native people see natives as ghostly because they think they’re disappearing, or not real anymore. but  native peoples experience white/colonial people as both ghostly and physically-present, depending on the context. white people are ghostly when it comes to native legal systems, and political authority; they can’t be touched, because U.S. law has taken away any power native law might have had to punish white people for hurting native people on their land. but when it comes to actual, day-to-day racist violence, and to the punishments and laws decided on by white/colonial authorities, white people are very, very physically present and powerful; they can be violent, and even deadly. in erdrich’s novel, i think the contradictory way that white people and colonial authority is both ghostly and corporeal/physical, depending on the context, is a really valuable critical perspective on how the U.S. government structures legal and political systems to persecute and disadvantage native communities and authorities.

lemme know how accessible/interesting this is. i’m curious as to how this will read to other people!



3 thoughts on “accessible language practice

  1. It honestly reads like you’re writing for kids (not a good thing because that type of writing is usually patronizing, even though it doesn’t need to be). Some parts are also conversational-sounding, which I think is unnecessary. There are also a lot of redundant sentences that could easily be simplified and still made accessible. I also think it’s possible to write in plain English without veering into conversational or patronizing language—simple changes like using “things” instead of “stuff” would be good.

    • Okay. I think one of the things I struggle with is how to sound “plain” without sounding “conversational” because while this is how I talk normally (I’m completely serious), I’m not very good at being “plain.” The “things” versus “stuff” suggestion is very helpful! I will totes use that. Similarly, I tend to struggle with redundancy and multiple-part sentences, so I’m going to work on that. I’m a rambler by nature, and often forget where I’m going mid-sentence, so I’ll have to do a lot of work to keep things concise.

      Another thing to clarify/ask about: While I absolutely get that this likely sounds patronizing when read as a conscious attempt to be “readable,” I want to emphasize that this is much closer to my normal manner of speaking than academic language–one of the reasons I chose to write like this was because it would be much more accessible a format for me as a writer, and would help me talk about my ideas without the added burden of having to use academic language. I appreciate that you brought up the fact that it sounds patronizing, because that was very much a surprise to me–this is how I talk to myself, and I was very much not expecting that, so I’m gonna work on being careful to avoid sounding patronizing.

      I can also see how it would be patronizing, given that I think my “accessible” language is usually language I use for either A. Breaking things down for my own comprehension needs/working ideas out roughly, or B. Discussing topics with people who are less familiar with them, or less experienced. And I don’t think either of those kinds of language is precisely the language that’s appropriate for an attempt at accessibility, probably. So I appreciate your insight.

    • After spending some more time reading through and thinking about this, I’d also like to apologize for what was a very clumsy conflation of conceptual accessibility and language accessibility. Since I tend to be very concrete, I think I usually assume that accessible language means using more concrete terms to describe stuff, when for many people that’s neither helpful nor necessary. I’m definitely having to rethink what exactly language accessibility means, especially when I’m using it in a broader sense to talk to people who likely have needs very different from my own.

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