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Novel 'Boys Come First' depicts the triumphs and struggles of three gay Black millennials in Detroit

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Courtesy, Aaron Foley/ Belt Publishing

The new novel Boys Come First by Aaron Foley follows three gay Black men trying to navigate their thirties, hookups and career struggles amid a changing city of Detroit.

Foley is also a Senior Editor with PBS NewsHour. He’s written and edited two guidebooks about Detroit as well. Foley is here with me now. Thank you for joining me.

Interview Highlights

On why he decided to center the story on Black gay men

There's not a lot of fiction at all that sort of deals with that. I mean, there are some great novelists like E. Lynn Harris and Bryan Washington and so on and so forth that have written about Black gay men. But by and large, a lot of queer fiction does not always center that voice, and I just wanted to do my small part to contribute to that.

On how millennial gay men fall between two very different generations

Especially for millennial gay men, you know, there was a time where it wasn't always safe to come out. You know, a lot of younger generations come out a lot earlier. A lot of people older than us, you know, a lot of their coming out is rooted in activism and survival. I think for millennial gay man, for like the ones in the middle, here, we're kind of in that point where it's just like, okay, we're not quite the activists, but we're not also, you know, at that point where we could have come out when we were like 13, 14, 15.

On how he wrote about the city of Detroit

It's almost a genre where you cannot write about Detroit without writing about the destruction and the devastation and things like that. And yet people still live in Detroit. People still have fun in Detroit. People still have lives, love, romance, career ambitions, dreams, all of that. And I wanted to do something where it's just like okay, this is a city that's gone through a lot, yes. But I didn't want to like dwell on that though. A lot of that has been written. What does it mean to walk through a life in Detroit?

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: The new novel Boys Come First by Aaron Foley follows three gay Black men trying to navigate their thirties, hookups and career struggles amid a changing city of Detroit.

Foley is also a Senior Editor with PBS NewsHour. He’s written and edited two guidebooks about Detroit as well. Foley is here with me now. Thank you for joining me.

Aaron Foley: Thanks for having me. Sophia. Great to be here.

Saliby: This is your first novel. What made you decide to dip into fiction?

Foley: It's something I've always wanted to do. When I was a little kid, I used to write short stories and things like that, and I had big dreams of being a novelist.

I went into journalism, but then I always had that fiction bug sort of still biting at me. So, no time like the present. I just had to go ahead and do it.

But when I became an adult and realized that you can't, only a lucky few get to write full time, and you have to have some other kind of career to support yourself.

I went into journalism, but then I always had that fiction bug sort of still biting at me. So, no time like the present. I just had to go ahead and do it.

Saliby: I saw that you originally planned to make the story about three women instead of gay men. Why did you decide to make that change?

Foley: A very good friend of mine made that suggestion. He said, "It would be a lot more difficult for you as a man to write from the point of view of a woman." And I was like, "Yeah. You're right. You're right."

But then also, because the story is about gay Black men, there's not a lot of fiction at all that sort of deals with that. I mean, there are some great novelists like E. Lynn Harris and Bryan Washington and so on and so forth that have written about Black gay men. But by and large, a lot of queer fiction does not always center that voice, and I just wanted to do my small part to contribute to that.

Saliby: On that note, I'm thinking about the types of love stories we see about people in the gay community. Many of them, I think, center on young, white gay men who are just coming out.

The characters in your book, like, talk about this, just as we're talking about this, how there's not really these types of love stories, and there's not that many Black gay couples in popular culture to look up to. Can you speak more on how you decided to tackle this issue in the book? And I'm gonna say for listeners, you don't hold back talking about love and sex with these characters.

Foley: It's something that a lot of my friends and I talk about amongst ourselves, in terms of not seeing that representation, and a lot of queer media, TV, film and books are kind of focused on that young adult, teenage, often very white love story. And that's only one particular facet of queer life, and that's even before you get into like, trans representation, lesbian representation and so on and so forth.

I was thinking that like, okay, you know, there's something to be said about the intersectionality of race and sexuality here, in terms of, we walk a different path than that, you know, 18-year-old kid who's just come out. Especially for millennial gay men, you know, there was a time where it wasn't always safe to come out. You know, a lot of younger generations come out a lot earlier. A lot of people older than us, you know, a lot of their coming out is rooted in activism and survival.

I think for millennial gay man, for like the ones in the middle, here, we're kind of in that point where it's just like, okay, we're not quite the activists, but we're not also, you know, at that point where we could have come out when we were like 13, 14, 15.

I think for millennial gay man, for like the ones in the middle, here, we're kind of in that point where it's just like, okay, we're not quite the activists, but we're not also, you know, at that point where we could have come out when we were like 13, 14, 15.

Like, you see, so what does that mean? You know, what kind of, you know, how does that affect how some of these characters, like the ones I write about, walk through life and being Black at the same time? You know, it's not all, you know, we're faced with all kinds of oppression and prejudice and things like that which is something else I tried to touch on.

So, writing about those intersectionalities is something that I didn't see a lot of, and I'm not trying to be the torchbearer here, you know, there are a lot of people, you know, doing this work or attempting to get this work out there. I just thought it was important to sort of touch on some of these things.

Saliby: There are three main characters in your book, but I almost felt the actual city of Detroit was this fourth main character. It's changing just as much as these three guys mostly due to gentrification and development.

How did the city become such a prominent part of the book? Or is was it really, it was always like that?

Foley: It was always like that. I'm an avid reader of any book that comes out about Detroit, but a lot of the books in the last decade, sort of, were rooted in like post-bankruptcy, right? How did the city end up to be this like, you know, bombed-out shell of his former self and things like that?

It's almost a genre where you cannot write about Detroit without writing about the destruction and the devastation and things like that. And yet people still live in Detroit. People still have fun in Detroit. People still have lives, love, romance, career ambitions, dreams, all of that.

And it became, I don't want to say repetitive, but it's almost a genre where you cannot write about Detroit without writing about the destruction and the devastation and things like that. And yet people still live in Detroit. People still have fun in Detroit. People still have lives, love, romance, career ambitions, dreams, all of that.

And I wanted to do something where it's just like okay, this is a city that's gone through a lot, yes. But I didn't want to like dwell on that though. A lot of that has been written. What does it mean to walk through a life in Detroit?

You know, I wanted it something that just really explained like, what is Detroit like now with the new developments, with what it means for the people that have lived there their whole lies when they're seeing the city change so rapidly from what they knew as children, as teenagers and things like that and how does that affect how they pursue whatever they want to pursue?

Saliby: Aaron Foley wrote Boys Come First which is out now. Thank you for joining me.

Foley: Thanks, Sophia. Always good to be on WKAR.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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