"It's a weird dance" playing the "Victim": When trauma-seekers pigeonhole writers of color

What happens when you build a career off of beautiful lies that expose ugly truths? Andrew Boryga spills to Salon

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published March 30, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Rear view of male editorial photographer arriving at the editorial office (Getty Images/miodrag ignjatovic)
Rear view of male editorial photographer arriving at the editorial office (Getty Images/miodrag ignjatovic)

It took award-winning author Andrew Boryga 10 years to write his debut novel "Victim," which was published in March.

When I talked to Boryga recently about spending so much time on the project, and if it would have taken that long if it wasn't so personal, he said, “I really wanted to get it right. I really wanted to not cut any corners.

“I wanted to write something that I felt would not only be entertaining,” Boryga continued, “But hopefully start a conversation, and get people thinking.” 

And this is exactly what Boryga has accomplished. His words have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The Daily Beast, in addition to other publications and he has been awarded various prizes from Cornell University, The Michener Foundation and The Society of Professional Journalists.

"Victim" tells the tale of Javi, a talented young writer from the Bronx, who quickly finds out that playing the victim is a valuable way to fast-track his nonexistent career into literary greatness. Javi does have some personal trauma, like witnessing his father’s murder and seeing his best friend Gio choose the streets, which eventually gets him incarcerated. However, Javi grossly fabricates his role in all of this and enjoys the rewards until they blow up in his face. 

"Victim" is at its best when explaining entry points and how hood politics work, and can serve as a guide to those hungry to publish minority pain and trauma, but disappear when positive stories from the same communities surface. 

Read the Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about "Victim," how Boryga made the transition from the Bronx to a career in journalism and who has the right to tell what kinds of stories. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Welcome, welcome. So first I want to say congratulations on a wonderful debut. Thank you for doing this. And I want to get right into it, man. How'd you come up with "Victim"?

Man, it was a long journey, brother. I started it 10 years ago, and it was really this friendship story at the center of it, Gio and Javi, trying to write about two kids that came from the same neighborhood in the Bronx, who just took really different paths in life.

And that was something I was obsessed with, because I had a lot of friends I grew up with who went to drugs or gangs and then I went to Cornell. And I went to these nice, fancy places, and I had a lot of survivor's guilt. 

So I was trying to write this story about these two kids. And then that story just kept evolving. And I started writing for these publications, and dealing with editors who were like, "Oh, OK, you're from this background, you can write about these things. Let me get you to write more and more."

And at first I'm like, "OK, this is cool." But then I'm like, "Oh wait, this is all you want me to write about, isn't it? OK." And I don't know, man, and I would talk to a lot of people, writers of color too, especially, who were going through the same thing. And I'm like, this is weird. What is this about?

And so I started, Javi became somebody who turned to this ulterior version of me, who, instead of being weirded out about it like I was, just pulling back, he was like, "Nah, I'm going to give them exactly what they want, and I'm going to play my cards right and pimp this out to get where I wanted to be."

This story is definitely connected to almost any Black celebrity or public figure story. And if you pull back and think about it, it's what the American dream is.

Yeah, I think it is an American Dream story. It's like, Javi, he's trying to get his version of it, and he realizes, these are the cards that are handed to me, and he realizes what, if he wants to get where he wants to be, this is what he has to do. And he decides to just pimp it out. 

And so I don't know, I think a lot of the country, we're all trying to sell a certain version of ourselves.  Whether you're in corporate America, or you're a politician, politicians do this stuff all the time. You know what I mean? They always talk about their rags-to-riches backgrounds.

"And it's very difficult, especially as a writer of color, or even a writer just from a background where you're connected to these big news stories in a way that other writers are not. How do you play these cards?"

It's such a smart book, because it left me thinking about a whole lot of different things. One was, without Javi's backstory, does he make it in publishing? What is his trajectory and what is his road to publishing? 

He probably has no career. It's going to be a lot harder to break in. Again, he's a smart kid and he is like, all right, this is my way in.

And you don't get room to grow.

You have no latitude to write some weird s**t. You can't be like the Black David Foster Wallace or whatever. You know what I mean? You got to just write about the police shootings. It's like, what the f**k?

But on the other side, it's like, he is someone who goes to these newsrooms, and he's like, I could play this because I know you can't call me on it because you don't even know.  And so it's like this weird balance that I was trying to get at, where it's like, you want to get these opportunities, you want to write these stories, and you're also moving in this world where it's like people don't really understand you. But at the same time, you're trying to be authentic, and to yourself, and what your goals are.

And it's very difficult, especially as a writer of color, or even a writer just from a background where you're connected to these big news stories in a way that other writers are not. How do you play these cards? It's not something I necessarily have the answers to, but I was trying to explore all that. Because that was definitely my journey as well.

Whenever something tragic with Puerto Rico came up, or in the Bronx, it's like, "OK, he's the guy." It's like, well . . .

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If it wasn't such a personal story, would it have taken you 10 years?

Probably, because I really wanted to get it right. I really wanted to not cut any corners. I wanted to write something that I felt would not only be entertaining, but hopefully start a conversation and get people thinking. And to me, that's the ultimate goal.

I read, like Paul Betty is a writer of mine I love, and I look up to him. And people still talk about "The Sellout." And that's a book that's like, I aspire to do something like that because those are the things that last. So I was in the Bronx yesterday for my reading with Ernesto Quiñonez who wrote "Bodega Dreams," and it's like, that book was 20 years old. I read it the other day, just to get ready for our conversation. I'm like, this is still so good and it's so relevant to today. And so that s**t takes time. It takes time.

I think people are going to be talking about this book for a long time. Can you talk about the structure? You give it to us in the beginning, and then we get a chance to see it unfold.

Ah, man, that's so cool to hear you say that, man. But yeah, the structure, that took a while to land because I tried to write it as just a straight narrative before, but then I realized, for this to work and to pull people in, I had to write it as a memoir.

And Javi has gone through his downfall and is looking back, and he has the perspective to fill in the gaps. Whereas, if I was just writing it as he was going through it, it'd be weird to have the commentary. I think the commentary gives it, from Javi's perspective as a memoir, gives it another layer, where it's like he's telling you what he did, he's trying to explain his moves, but also calling people out at the same time.

Yes. We trust him because the worst thing that could happen to him has happened.

It already happened, yes.

He's going back and telling us. So now it's like, what reason do you have to lie now? 

But then, the other thing about it that I liked about that memoir structure is, I imagine if Jussie Smollett, somebody like that wrote a memoir, it's like everyone's going to read it, but everyone's going to be looking for the part where it's like, man . . . 

"I think it's, first of all, newsrooms are not diverse. They're just not. It's plainly obvious. And you look at whatever stats you want, they're really not."

I think it also made me laugh so hard, because I've been that Black person in white newsrooms, like Javi. But at the same time, I did all the street stuff. What would you say to a newsroom that lacks diversity while trying to be diverse? 

I think it's, first of all, newsrooms are not diverse. They're just not. It's plainly obvious. And you look at whatever stats you want, they're really not. And when they do grow more and more diverse, I think they tend to go to the same three schools or whatever. And I don't know, I just wish that the newsrooms looked a little bit more, almost honestly, like they used to. They used to be more of a blue-collar profession. You know what I mean?

You would have, maybe unfortunately, not as many Black and brown people in the newsroom, but they would be people from the neighborhoods that they actually covered. And I don't know, it's just weird to get a kid who's talented, and pigeonhole them to writing about some topic that you feel the rest of the newsroom doesn't know about.

The other way it should be, you should send those other people out there, so that they can become more well-rounded and allow this kid to become more well-rounded as well. Give them the weird culture story that they might want to write. And I don't know, I guess just not pigeonholing people. And if I want to write something different, it's like, I'm not going to get those same opportunities.

So I really think it's important to just try to, if you get a talented person from a marginalized background, just look at them as a talented person, not just like, OK, this could be my Puerto Rico kid story.

Oh, then I'm crying laughing. It's like, them hipsters, they annoying as f**k, man. But look, we want them clicks. 

We do.

We want that hipster money, and we want them to pack out those book events. We want all of that.

Yeah, it's a weird, like I said, it's really cool to talk to you, because I've seen your growth and everything, and I loved your pictures. And I'm like, all right, you were really connected to life back home, and now you're really doing this. There's not many people like that in the literary world. So I've always respected you for that, because it's like, it's a weird jump to make. 

And it's something that I always thought about, even though I wasn't even at your level or anything like that. But it's like you're trying to stay true, but you're also trying to progress, and work with these people who don't come from where you come from. It's a weird dance for writers like us.

And I think this is the most brilliant part on the book, and if you can elaborate on it, it'd be perfect.

Of course. 

I can already see, insert whatever big Black, POC, whatever intellectual saying, "The hood is not that bad." And when you read this book, that's not the message. The message is clearly about entry point. 

And I'm only saying this because I had conversations with Black scholars in the past, who was like, "Why do you guys write about trauma so much? Why do you talk about trauma so much? Talk about joy. Joy."

Yeah, man. No, I love that you picked up on that, man, because that's huge for me. That was my upbringing, man. Again, the entry point you're saying, if you were an outsider looking in, you're like, "Damn, he just came from this poor neighborhood. Everyone was poor. We had a single mom. It was like . . ." But it was like, in my reality, I was blessed.

My dad wasn't around. We had family members involved in drugs, and killed, and all types of stuff in Puerto Rico. We had a lot of tragedy. But my mom was a great single mom, you know what I mean? She would take me to the bookstore, she would support me. She would make sure I stay out of trouble.

I look back and I'm like, I was the fortunate one. And I still think that. Or even on a money level – I tell this all the time; people laugh, but it's the truth – I didn't know I was poor until I went to Cornell.

You don't know.

I didn't know, bro. I knew people with eviction notices and shit, so I didn't have that. We never had an eviction notice. We paid the rent late, but like . . .

Yes, what was that moment? I'm going to tell you my moment when I found out, and you tell me your moment when you found out. My moment I found out when somebody asked me where do I summer? And I'm like, "What does that mean? What are you talking about? 

What you mean? Yeah, I work, I work. That happened to me too. I would go there, and they'd be like . . . because I got there and it's like, we just finished the summer. So the question they always ask, "Oh, what'd you do this summer?" That's the orientation question.


And everyone's like, "Oh, I was yachting," and whatever, places I never heard of. And, "I was skiing over here, and I was doing this. And I did some mission trip to Africa," and I was like, "I was a shipping clerk on 42nd Street, going to UPS store every day, making money." I don't know. It was weird.

And then I had kids who lived next to me, they had so much money, obscenely amount. They had their tuition paid for by their parents, and then they would get a G a month just to f**king spend on whatever, a couple G's a month. Or they drove a Mini Cooper on campus and were 18. I was like, "Damn."

And then I would tell my stories of my family and stuff, and then the same thing, you get these looks on their face like, "Oh wow, so your dad wasn't around?" You're like, "Oh, you shared your bedroom your whole life?" And I was like, "Yeah, but it was cool. It was a big bedroom." You know what I mean? I would never look at it like that, but then all of a sudden I was getting this reaction.

And it makes you start to look at yourself differently. And it's like, now you're given this message, like, "Oh, you had it so hard. You're a victim." Or you're like, I don't know. And it was this weird shift, where all of a sudden I had to start to see myself differently, and learn to come back around and be like, "No, no, no, I'm just going to be, 'That is me, but so what?'" But I don't know, it's a weird thing that happens to you. And it can f**k you up psychologically.

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Nobody wants to be a monolith, but then everybody's working super hard to try to group people. And you just have to stop.

Even with some of these terms, like POC, or BIPOC, I understand what the sensibility of it is, to try to do, but it's like you're grouping people, massive groups of people that are not same. You know what I mean?

So to me, a big claim I'm trying to make in the book is just evaluate and listen to each other as individuals, and relate as individuals, and allow people to express their individual story. Because when you try to make someone the spokesperson for this wide group of people, that doesn't make any sense.

There's no the white voices. Nah, it's like you have a million white writers in Brooklyn, writing all types of stories, and no one ever thinks of them as like, "OK, he's the white voice."

The voice. The voice of the white people.

Yeah, the voice of the whites. It's like, what?

The book was fire, man. Congratulations.

Thank you so much, man.


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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