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SunLit Interviews

Writing “Bitterroot” allowed author to add humanity to data from her previous work on transracial adoption

Susan Devan Harness not only found writing her own account cathartic, but she says it also "laid a lot of my ghosts to rest"

Susan Devan Harness (Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes) is a writer, lecturer, and oral historian, and has been a research associate for the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. She is also the author of “Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958–1967).”

The following is an interview with Harness.

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to put a face to research on American Indian transracial adoption issues and outcomes in 2006.  The book that resulted from that research, “Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967)” (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), contained the raw data and discussion of that data.  But research many times loses the people and their stories behind that data. I felt it was important to remind readers there is a human experience behind the informal policy of American Indian transracial adoption of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and very real after-effects.

Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

My reading interests have changed over the years.  With regard to fiction, I enjoyed Jean Auel, and Susan Harrison, who specialized in prehistorical fiction.  And Stephen King for his characterizations. He does such a great job sketching out characters that the little kids he introduces at the beginnings of the book, if they continue to live, are recognizable as adults, with their looks, but mainly their mannerisms and dress and worldview. I really liked Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea.”  He changed how I looked at creative nonfiction, from dull to three-dimensional, bringing historical figures to life.  I loved Tony Hillerman, author of the Navajo murder mysteries, but when I read his fictionalized autobiography “Finding Moon,” my interests began to be drawn even more strongly to personal stories.  I really like Barbara Kingsolver’s creative nonfiction style, such as “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and anything written by Amy Tan.  But one of the very first books I read as an early teen that opened up the world of creative nonfiction was Farley Mowat’s “Never Cry Wolf.” 

“Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption” by Susan Devan Harness.

Of course, know this, my favorite characters are Joe Leaphorn, as a product of assimilation, I understood his life and was very drawn to it.  Or even Jean Auel’s main character, Ayla, who inhabited an in-between space as well. They helped me not only understand my experience but validated that it was real enough to write about, in any form.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

So many stories contain parent issues, and father issues, and my life was no different.  My dad was a harsh man, with a very strong and rigid personality, and we clashed a lot. But one of the most important things I wanted to do when I wrote this book is write about tragedy in a way that allows all people in it to keep as much dignity as possible.  That means there are no heroes and no villains in “Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption,” just broken people who make many mistakes in spite of how they originally may have wanted to be.  My dad was harsh, but there was also a very gentle nature to him that came out when he felt good about the world.  Those are two very important parts of his personality, and the foundations for his interactions with me.

What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

I got to finally tell the truth about my experience, rather than bending to people’s expectations of how they felt it should be.  A friend from college called me after she finished reading it and said, “Did you ever tell anyone what your life was really like?”  “No.” “I mean you never told me, but did you ever tell anyone?” “No.” The price of honesty was too high. However, if you can’t tell your story in your 40s or 50s, when will you ever be able to?  It laid a lot of my ghosts to rest.

What was the most difficult section to write in this book?  Why?

This excerpt was the most difficult, because I had to be brutally honest not only with my readers but with myself about the tensions between love and loathing with my father.  People ask, “How you can you love someone who treats you like that?” You love them, because that’s all you know, because they are the cornerstone of your life for many years, and because they aren’t like that every day of the week.  But it’s OK to say that hatred bordered on love for very specific reasons.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

A lot of the research I had initially done for the book was actually done for “Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption.” So, I didn’t learn much new regarding the research.  But I did learn something new about the experience. As I was seeking to pull this book together, I thought it would be a good idea to return to my reservation for a month, back to where it all began.  I rented a condo and wrote for hours most days of the week. When I wasn’t writing, I drove the back roads with my sister, Ronni. As I became more familiar with the space, I also became more familiar with my family.  Although Ronni and I shared this time in a very positive way, I began to realize that with other people, family and nonfamily, visiting the reservation for a week, versus visiting it for month puts a stress on relationships.  I’m not sure why because I didn’t ask people, but I believe it’s because some people may be uncomfortable that you’ll see more than they want you to see or know them more than they feel comfortable with you knowing them. More importantly, I got a chance to see how outsiders were perceived, and I wasn’t prepared for that abrupt edge of belonging/not belonging, and I definitely fell in to the non-belonging category.  That was a difficult month for me because I had to face the realities of the life I lived and the life I left. It was very uncomfortable at times.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve got some ideas in the works, but I don’t like talking about them much because they begin to lose their magic.  It’s as if I’ve already told the story so I don’t need to do it again. But there’s been enough time between “Bitterroot” and what’s coming next that I can begin to devote some real thought to   whatever sits on the horizon.

Buy “Bitterroot” at BookBar.
Excerpt: “Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption” by Susan Devan Harness.