Local Author Explores Empathy’s Edge

In her new novel, ‘At the Edge of the Haight,’ former Chronicle staffer Katherine Seligman explores the boundaries of empathy.

Toward the end of Katherine Seligman’s debut novel, At the Edge of the Haight, a middle-class father enters Golden Gate Park and joins a group of unhoused young adults. Together they spend the day smoking pot, chatting idly, and more or less lounging around. That night, the man sleeps alongside them on the park lawns, and before falling asleep, says to the group, “It’s impossible to really know a person, but I feel I’m understanding you better.”

Seligman does not aim for sentimentalism here. If this man’s actions strike readers as graceless or careless; if his attempts at camaraderie and empathy come across as specious or even offensive, they are meant to. In response to the father’s insistence on their newfound connection, a young man in the group replies, “It’s called being baked.” Even the cynicism of this reply is defanged, as if irony, too, is a worn-down defense against the conditions of homelessness. 

Courtesy of Algonquin Books

But I have omitted one important detail of the scene: This middle-class father, Dave, is no bleeding-heart yuppie. His adult son Shane, also unhoused, was murdered some weeks prior, and Maddy — the novel’s protagonist and a member of the group Dave spends the night with — discovered Shane’s body as he took his final breaths. Having revealed this detail, Dave’s attempts at empathy should suddenly mean more, right? Something deeper. Something justifiable.

Maybe, but probably not. 

The vast chasm between what we perceive and what we can know about a person is a problem that occupies much of Katherine Seligman’s novel, and much of her own thinking. A decades-long San Franciscan with over 30 years of experience in journalism — largely investigating homelessness and its intersecting social issues — Seligman has turned to fiction in an effort to more accurately depict the interior contours of those experiences. 

Read More: An excerpt from At the Edge of the Haight.

At the Edge of the Haight, published by Algonquin Books, is Seligman’s first novel — though Seligman is no stranger to fiction. Immediately after graduating from Stanford in 1975, Seligman enrolled in an MFA program, intent on becoming a writer. But shortly afterward, during a public reading of one of her short stories, she had a startling realization: The story didn’t strike her as authentic. “I didn’t know what I wanted to write about,” she says. Frustrated with her fiction, but still interested in writing, Seligman left the program after half a year and pivoted into journalism.

In 1988 she traveled to Sudan on assignment for the magazine Life to write about homelessness in the streets of Khartoum. She lived there for a month, speaking to children, mostly young boys, who had been displaced by the ongoing civil war. In that article, Seligman describes the omnipresent danger those boys faced, as well as the entrenched, dysfunctional powers perpetuating their conditions; but she also crafts an image of a community built on mutual-reliance and trust — a paradoxical form of living that re-appears in At the Edge of the Haight

Looking back on it now, Seligman acknowledges just how profoundly that assignment in Khartoum influenced the content of her writing. “That story stuck with me,” she says. “I started gravitating toward issues of displacement.”

As a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, Seligman has covered a number of stories surrounding education and healthcare, but the condition of displacement — and the manifestations of this condition — maintained a hold on her. 

Asked about the shift back to fiction, and why she felt the novel was the best form to continue talking about urban homelessness, she says, “What I really wanted to write about was not necessarily homelessness, per se, but about the notion of walking by people we see all the time — having no idea of their stories and assuming a huge amount about who they are.”

Like Seligman, the novel’s protagonist Maddy frequently reflects on positionality and the limitations of knowing, particularly knowing through viewing. In the book’s opening pages, Maddy remarks on a typical interaction between tourists and unhoused populations: how the former photograph the latter as though they are just another city attraction. In all of her interactions with people outside her community — police, Dave, social workers — Maddy reflects on the way she must appear to others.

“If you went across the park and showed people my picture, they would say they didn’t know me either. Or that I was a slut or a tweaker with a weird ass dog,” she tells a friend. Ironically, at the novel’s conclusion Maddy has discovered a talent for photography and begun taking photos of her friends. Even this, however, is done with hesitancy: “People believed what they saw, but it was not the same as what was really there.”

In not such dissimilar phrasing, Seligman describes the relationship she has observed between unhoused people in her neighborhood and those not on the streets. A longtime Haight resident, she often stops to talk to the unhoused living on her block — “kids,” as she frequently refers to them. Outside of those interactions, and her journalism, she also spent several years volunteering at a local family home. But it was a more harrowing experience that ultimately became the seed for her novel’s primary storyline.

About ten years ago, Seligman and her husband were driving through Golden Gate Park and discovered the aftermath of a murder. As in Shane’s death in the novel, this real-life case got little news coverage before fading from public interest. Seligman, however, found herself ruminating on the young man’s death and the events that may have led to it.

Asked about the choice to fictionalize that event and the novel’s events more broadly, Seligman says that journalism and nonfiction don’t offer the same kind of multiplicity of viewpoints and characters that fiction does. A quoted interviewee can only be understood so far. Relatedly, I would argue that her characters are placed into unlikely circumstances from which emerge constructive ambiguities that enable a more profound critique of empathy than journalism would allow. As an example, let’s return to the scene of Dave in the park, desperately trying to understand his son’s life.

An unhoused man bends down in Golden Gate Park. ‘At the Edge of the Haight’ is centered around a group of young unhoused individuals whose lives are further disrupted by a murder in the park. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

Previously, I stated that the scene resists being read as sentimental, but that’s not completely correct; instead, Dave’s re-enactment of homelessness exists on the extreme end of a spectrum of well-intentioned gestures performed by several of the novel’s characters, including Maddy. Rather than helping, these well-intentioned gestures more often reveal how empathy driven by sentimentalism — or typical, mawkish forms of sentimentalism — negate a multiplicity of experiences. That’s to say, if your assumption is that re-enactment helps you know a person’s feelings, your project is off to a bad start.

In this way, Dave’s struggles mirror Seligman’s own challenge as the writer. How can she, even after years of journalism, speak to even a singular experience of homelessness? How can she inhabit this 20-year-old runaway named Maddy? One place she began was within her own psychology. While acknowledging the stability of her childhood as compared to Maddy’s, Seligman does feel a more existential kinship with her protagonist. Seligman, who grew up in Los Angeles, describes her younger self as bookish, spending a lot of time alone in her room, and feeling disconnected from her home.

“I was an isolated kid,” she says. “There was some element of knowing what it’s like to grow up and feel like you’re unseen.”  

Meanwhile, to create a factual setting for the novel, Seligman conducted the familiar research of a journalist. She acknowledges the contributions of the many unhoused people whom she spoke to about their experiences. “When I decided to do this as a novel, I did find a couple kids who I talked to extensively… They were very generous.” She also spoke to social workers and police and spent time in emergency rooms and at courthouses.

The social novel identifies and critiques the network of overlapping systems of power through which its characters move. This is one of Seligman’s biggest accomplishments. In every chapter Maddy has to contend with police, social workers, precarious housing, and finding safety. And this experience isn’t glossed over or generalized — readers are given consistent reminders of how much more tenuous Maddy’s position is as a woman: sex is dangerous because it could mean pregnancy; her friend group keeps a man around because it means safety, if only by signaling male ownership over them.

In a way, Seligman’s writing process was an attempt at embodying this experience while understanding that it cannot be entirely embodied. She describes “walking through the neighborhood and just trying to feel like I was Maddy and trying to see what she would see.” As in her novel, as in the real-life experiences of unhoused people, sight’s judgements take precedence. “I would hope that people would walk down the street and take a closer look at the person who is sitting on the corner,” Seligman says of her hopes for her novel. “I mean, try to see people who are in our communities and who are unhoused.”

It’s a simple but realistic hope for a book so critical of sappy attempts at knowing a person. Seeing happens first, and then maybe something like empathy. But not the empathy that comes from sleeping overnight in a park or walking through a neighborhood with eyes wide open. It comes piecewise, with repeated backsteps and regressions. And it is asymptotic: A lifetime passes and no matter how close, how much you look, you never really know another person.

‘At the Edge of the Haight’
Published Jan. 19
Katherine Seligman | Algonquin Books

Julian Robles is a contributing writer. Twitter @PBJ_Robles

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