Very human problems with Nicola Dinan

Author Nicola Dinan discusses her debut novel, 'Bellies', and wrestling with discursive questions around first love and the transgender experience. 
  • PhotographerAlex Rorison
  • WriterAmber Rawlings

“I think it’d be really odd to read Bellies and think it’s just a book about trans people,” its author, Nicola Dinan, tells HUNGER. “If [readers] did, I would honestly start to reflect on my own writing.” Luckily, Dinan hasn’t had to do that. Praised for its depiction of first love and the very modern reason for the central relationship’s eventual demise, her melancholic yet deeply humorous debut completely transcends being the zeitgeist-y novel people might have expected. Snapped up after a five-way auction, it went on to be shortlisted for the Mo Siewcharran Prize.

Following recent graduates Ming and Tom and tracking how their relationship changes in the face of Ming’s transition, Bellies is a charming and affective novel that traverses London, New York and Kuala Lumpur. Though Dinan has repeatedly emphasised that Bellies is fictional, readers will be quick to note the similarities between her and Ming. Thirty-year-old Dinan is, like Ming, a Malaysian trans woman – the “triple jackpot of oppression”, as the author jokes. But any comparisons end there. Calling Bellies a documentation of its author’s experiences would be naive, and would ignore Dinan’s endeavours to wrestle with discursive questions about the human condition.

With Bellies now being released in paperback, Dinan reflects on the success of her first novel and anticipates the next phase of her perceptive explorations of love.

Amber Rawlings: How did Bellies come about as an idea? Was there something you felt was missing?

Nicola Dinan: I started writing Bellies just over three years ago. I was interested in the effect of someone transitioning on an interpersonal basis. This really life-changing process is often presented to us as being something that’s highly individual. But it isn’t often presented as something that, you know, affects others. In a world where people are sort of accepting of transness, what are the impacts that it can have in a romantic relationship? What questions does it raise about the limits of someone’s sexuality? You see that with Tom, who’s a gay man, in the wake of Ming’s transition. And I was very conscious that trans stories that came from a trans perspective weren’t really there. It’s not like I transitioned so that I could then write books about being trans. It was more just that I’m trans – that’s the viewpoint I have – and that’s something that’s not really represented in fiction. I knew a book like this would probably find an audience. That said, when you’re writing from a marginalised position you can be deceived into thinking there are only so many seats at the table. There’s an illusion of scarcity. I remember so clearly when Detransition, Baby [by Torrey Peters] came out [in 2021]. I was halfway through the first draft of Bellies, and I was like, “Fuck my life, there goes my book.”

AR: Were you scared of Bellies being pigeonholed as a “trans book” when you were writing it?

ND: Definitely. And those fears became a lot more acute when we were selling the TV rights for the book. I was taking meetings with TV studios, and if there was a word cloud of things that were said at these, it would have just been “trans” and “queer”. They only saw the trans aspect… And they saw it as an angle that increased the project’s marketability rather than a fresh vantage point to view these very human problems. People are smart, though. I think it would be really odd to read Bellies and think it’s just a book about trans people. If they did, I would honestly start to reflect on my own writing.

AR: Would you call Bellies a love story? Or would you say it’s almost hard to do so because the inclusion of trans identities “complicates” the normal trajectory of things?

ND: I mean, what is a love story to you?

AR: I don’t know. It probably is super-heteronormative. I always get an image of a very typical romcom.

ND: That’s so interesting. I think that is our prevailing understanding of what a love story is. It’s very narrow. I would say Bellies is a novel about the many forms that love takes. That’s why there’s such an emphasis throughout on the secondary relationships – the one between Ming and her stepmum, Cindy, is particularly special. And all those between Tom and Ming and their friends. I wanted to expand our notions of love by focusing on what exists outside romantic love, by looking at what romantic love can become.

AR: How did you find the experience of writing love? How did you go about capturing something so transient?

ND: It’s not something that I necessarily do with confidence. I’m doing the final round of edits on my second novel at the moment, and I’m questioning whether the depiction of love is believable. You don’t really know if the chemistry will land with some readers. I’m sure with some it does, and with some it doesn’t. I don’t find that I need to write extended passages about what it means to be in love or to create all of these extensive metaphors for love. I’m not going to come up with 50 different visuals for a boob. At the end of the day, the way that the characters move and speak to each other should show everything. That’s why there’s so much physical intimacy in the book. In the first chapter – and this relates to the title – Ming asks Tom to lie on her belly and listen to the sounds it makes. I think you get so much more from these sections than if a character were to try to describe how they feel about another person. Love is lovely. Sex is sexy. You don’t need to lean into them too much when you’re writing.

AR: It’s a very descriptive book in other ways, though. You paint a very vivid picture of London at a certain time and there’s a lot of pop culture references that transport you somewhere very specific. Were you ever concerned about Bellies feeling dated?

ND: I tried to pick references that signal a time without feeling alarming or distracting. It felt important to do this because Tom and Ming’s lives are so governed by the attitudes of the time. For trans people, particularly the legislative landscape of five years ago is already so different to that of the present day. Beyond me thinking it’s cute for a novel to belong to a particular moment in time, there’s a political reason that Bellies is set in the late 2010s.

AR: You’ve also talked a lot about how you wanted to create a trans character that wasn’t “perfect”. What elements of the trans experience did you want to show? And do you feel like any books have managed to capture that?

ND: I didn’t want to focus on the physical changes. I couldn’t think of anything more tedious than writing a year of Ming watching her boobs grow. It was much more interesting to focus on the emotions of the trans experience. The reality is that these emotions are often quite unflattering. Ming is dealing with a lot of pain and anxiety. She becomes very inward looking and, in some ways, self-obsessed. And this isn’t just harmful to herself, but to other people too. In terms of other books with problematic trans characters, Alison Rumfitt [author of 2021’s Tell Me I’m Worthless] and Torrey Peters’s work feels quite transgressive. I loved how Detransition, Baby really leaned into aspects of kink. I’m always really impressed when trans writers are able to free themselves of self-censorship.

AR: Bellies goes one step further than expressing our inner voices and really captures how we have this tendency to punish ourselves and moderate our thoughts. In part I think that’s a modern phenomenon, born out of the fear of causing offence, political correctness and the omnipresence of “therapy speak”. What are your thoughts?

ND: I’m interested in the ways that people hide themselves from themselves – the ways people mask what they’re feeling in order to avoid vulnerability. I agree and disagree that it’s a modern thing. What’s changed in the modern context is that we’re now armed with things like therapy speak. We’re able to give the illusion of emotional openness and vulnerability without any cost to ourselves. It’s something that appears quite a lot in my second book.

AR: There are some really funny moments in Bellies around the performative nature of being an “ally”. Was it somewhat cathartic to express that?

ND: I have a bad habit of reading reviews of Bellies, and I find the negative ones really interesting. One said, “This is just a book about a group of people in London that I know I would dislike.” And I was like, “Yeah, definitely.” It represents a world that I’m plugged into and enjoy, but I’m also satirising and critiquing it through my work. It wasn’t like I had this burning rage inside me that I was hoping to expel by writing Bellies. I also observe and call out these things all the time.

AR: Bellies takes place in London, New York and Kuala Lumpur. How did you use these diverse settings to enhance the narrative and explore the varied cultural attitudes towards gender identity?

ND: I was always going to have a Malaysia chapter because I’m Malaysian and I grew up there. It meant a lot to me to be able to, you know, put Malaysian food into a novel without using italics. I also wanted to touch on the fact that Ming has a very difficult relationship with “home”. It’s something that a lot of UK ethnic minorities have with home countries that don’t have as liberal laws, or don’t have the same acceptance of trans people. I wanted to touch on the sense of pain and grief that comes from that. So much of Bellies is about yearning and desire – what we desire for ourselves, what we desire in others, what we desire others to be. That desire exists with Ming and Malaysia too. She’s yearning for a home that she doesn’t feel accepts her.

AR: That actually leads me onto the portrayal of intersectionality in Bellies – as a Malaysian trans woman, Ming meditates on both the challenges she faces and her privilege. Was it important for you to talk about intersectionality in this way?

ND: I think people in the UK go to great lengths to mask their class privilege. But having grown up in Malaysia, that’s not that natural to me. I couldn’t imagine writing a character like Ming who wasn’t super-aware of her class privilege. It always felt just necessary for her to laugh at the fact that she’s this “triple jackpot of oppression” as a trans woman of colour. And it was so easy to do – just a few lines to say that Ming’s experience isn’t necessarily representative. I don’t think a book has to speak to the entirety of the trans experience. I would really reject anyone imposing that duty on one book alone. But we do need more books about the working-class trans people who are really struggling to access the interventions they need. Ming accesses a medical transition fairly easily, and that’s something you can only do in the UK if you have financial privilege.

AR: I know you’re currently in the process of adapting Bellies for the screen. How has it felt putting it in other people’s hands?

ND: It’s hard to move from a scenario where you feel entirely in control. I have to accept that other people will steward the transition of a book from page to screen. When I’ve been writing the screenplay, I’ve had to leave room for the actors’ interpretation. I really rely on things like body language in my writing, so it’s been different to have to leave that out. It’s fun, though! It’s always interesting to see how other people reinvent your work. And it’s great to accept that their vision might actually be better.

AR: What do you hope readers take away from Bellies? Are there specific insights or conversations you hope the book sparks?

ND: It would be good if it sparked conversations about trans rights. It’s been nice having people from an older generation tell me that they’ve learnt a lot from the novel. I’m more interested in the questions Bellies raises around the way we use personal experiences to create art. I hope it moves beyond ideas of transness and towards bigger ones around how we should treat one another. To me, these are more interesting questions – they don’t come with clear answers. And I thrive in grey areas.

AR: What do you feel like you’ve taken away from Bellies in the time since its release?

ND: That’s such an interesting question. What do I take away from my own book? I haven’t read it since it came out. And I don’t know if I’m ever going to. I already feel a tiny sense of distance from it – I’ve moved on and have worked on other projects. Even though it’s fictional, I still see Bellies as a sort of time capsule of experiences that feel so representative of my early twenties. They’re immortalised in this thing I’ll have for ever.

AR: Finally, what are your hopes for your future work?

ND: I’m excited for the publication of my second novel, which in a lot of ways feels like a spiritual sequel to Bellies. It follows a group of characters in their early thirties who are questioning what they want from their lives. It’s not so much about the question of “Who am I?” that Bellies has. After that I think I need to make a departure from this sort of writing. I’m turning 30 in March and I feel like those 30 years of “life research” have gone into my first two books. It’s time to research a little bit further beyond myself. I’ve started on a historical novel. It’s very weird to call something a historical novel when it’s set in the 1980s, but it is technically historical fiction. It’s got elements of sci-fi and mystery, too.