Where are the Black gay novelists?
Aaron Foley Writes In
Next month, Belt Publishing is releasing its first novel, Boys Come First by Aaron Foley (it’s the third book Belt has published by Aaron, after How To Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass and the Detroit Neighborhood Guidebook.) It also (brag alert) a starred Publishers Weekly title and has received lots of other early accolades.
Aaron and I have been working together for going on 8 years now. Last spring, over beers, he told me he had written a novel for “his friends, because there is nothing else out there for them to read,” That conversation led me to reread “Waiting to Exhale” and do a deep dive on the absolutely fascinating career of E. Lynn Harris. And also to Belt publishing Aaron’s novel, of course.
Being the mean editor/publisher I am, a few months ago I looped back to that first conversation and asked Aaron if he would write omething about this fascinating, curious gap in the publishing landscape Because he’s the nicest guy as well as the bestest writer, he did. (All typos and other errors are mine!)
Why I Wrote Boys Come First by Aaron Foley
My grandmother was a fan of lengthy books and epics, and there are three that sat permanently on her bookshelf for all of my childhood: M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions, James Clavell’s Shogun, and Alex Haley’s Roots. I’d largely avoid them, and when I started buying books on my own, put them on my “someday” list, as in, someday I’ll read Roots just so I can say I saw the movie and read the book, or someday I’ll read my own copy of The Far Pavilions, which has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for years.
Then along came Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, the — as some would call it — the great gay novel of our time, and as long if not longer than those other ‘epics'. I happened to be in a bookstore when it first released, with zero intention of buying it. It was either on the new releases or the “our staff recommends” shelf, and after flipping through and reading the back cover copy, I had to have it. It checked all the boxes—Gay! Friendship! New York! Seems intellectual! — so that, when on display in my apartment, it would signal that I am a capital-S smart and serious reader.
Indeed it did. One guy I dated saw the scrunched-up face on my coffee table and went on and on about how he bawled on the subway when he got to the end. He was astonished when I showed him that there was a fan-driven Instagram account co-signed by Yanagihara herself. I’d hear similar I-cried-at-the-end sentiments on first dates, about how much of a long-haul it was to get through (it took me a round trip to Australia, for what it’s worth) and which character they most identified with (Jude, always Jude). One of my best friends had the exact same idea as me: Read it for yourself, yes, but as long as it’s somewhere in a (male, likely one-time-only) guest’s line of vision, they’ll like it, and they’ll like you a little bit more.
All of the men above are white. I don’t know how, but somehow I’ve become the sad-and-gay white boy whisperer just by having read Yanagihara’s much-discussed, and now much-reassessed, epic. But while simultaneously surveying any of the bookshelves of my Black gay friends and lovers, A Little Life is nowhere to be found. Granted, as someone who’s been stockpiling books since I got my first Golden Book when I was 2, I have a lot more variety than anyone from any background. But I did find it intriguing that even among my most well-read, nonwhite gay friends, A Little Life just wasn’t in the conversation.
I’d wager that a lot of queer fiction, or queer media period, is not on the radar of Black male readers. The short-lived HBO show Looking is another cultural touchstone for a certain brand of white gay millennial man; the ones I’ve dated it swear by it, as do my friends in that category. The oft-discussed shows among my Black gay friends literally range from 1970s Norman Lear sitcoms to Insecure and Euphoria, but I can’t ever recall anyone with melanin imploring me to catch up with Looking.
“But” — as the subway-crier told me at a Crown Heights cocktail bar — “at least there’s ‘Moonlight,’ which, yeah, there’s Moonlight, one of the best films, queer, Black, or otherwise, ever made. I retorted with the fact that Moonlight makes up the biggest part of a small sum of what Black gay men have, and after laundry-listing all the shows, movies and actors and producers who center the white gay experience, I reminded him of all the books he recommended and I subsequently bought with the same kind of protagonist.
And that’s when I went to work. At that point, I already had a wobbly, half-of-some kind of manuscript: three friends just kind of aimlessly fucking around Detroit and talking trash about men, with no true arc for any of them. After that conversation, I poured into what’s now Boys Come First, a story about friendship, specifically Black queer friendship, and how changes happening in Detroit might upend their bond.
I took inspiration from the Terry McMillan books on my mother’s shelf I used to sneak and read as a child, leaning into Black conversation that was honest, authentic and real, and attempting to shine a light on why you can’t have it all if you’re single, upwardly mobile and Black. I looked to E. Lynn Harris for honest, and at times, graphic, portrayal of queer Black men. A little bit of the comedic mishaps you might read from Tia Williams, and the cartographic sense of place from Eric Jerome Dickey.
And yes, I knew that two, maybe (if you read it) three, of the big four in A Little Life were men of color. But it was critical to me that my characters were not only unquestionably Black, but so was their world. Their lovers had to be Black, their frenemies had to be Black, their city had to be Black. For as much as has been written about Detroit lately, many of those bylines are white. I respect all of them, and am even friends with a few of these writers, don’t get me wrong. But I can name at least three memoirs that deal in the subject of being a white homeowner in the city and reflecting on being white in a Black city. Or, as I’ve groused about with other writers who question why this trope exists in fiction and nonfiction, the omnipresent white-guy-comes-back-to-the-city-after-a-long-absence-and-is-horrified narrative.
I ask anyone to name a Black gay author of fiction. Black readers always give me Harris, and non-Black gays give me James Baldwin. Both have been dead for decades, and of course there are several Black gay authors who have come along in their wake. Similarly, I ask friends back home in Detroit to name a story in present-day Detroit that doesn’t revolve around mystery, crime or the horrified white guy. And again, the answers are few.
So why’d I do it? I have no aspirations to be Harris or Baldwin, or Yanagihara for that matter. I did it because I wanted something for my friends to read. For my Black gay friends to say “yeah, you got this right” and for anyone who’s not to maybe see a little of themselves in someone not named Jude, Simon or Elio. It was damn fun writing Boys Come First, drawing on the many, many stories I’ve heard from Black gay men over the years and throwing them all in a blender to chart paths for my three protagonists. What’d be even more fun is after it comes out, it might become first-date fodder or make someone laugh on the subway. (Or in Detroit, the QLine.) If nothing else, it’ll add just a little more color to the queer landscape – and someday there will be more.
Boys Comes First publishes May 31. Signed preorders will ship from Belt Publishing in mid-May. Reserve your copy now. Aaron will be doing readings and events in Michigan bookstores in late May (details tk; contact email@example.com about scheduling), and, on June 2, along with most of the Belt staff, will celebrate the novel’s release at The Strand in NYC.
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