‘You can literally just do it’: Nicola Dinan on intimacy, representation and Bellies

‘You can literally just do it’: Nicola Dinan on intimacy, representation and Bellies

The author of acclaimed novel Bellies talks to Huck about the story’s success, the value of intimacy, and imbuing hardship with humour.

It’s a universal fact that your early twenties are a shitshow. You emerge from the chrysalis of adolescence into the big, bad world, forced to navigate endless choices and the heavy weight of societal expectation. It’s a period which fizzes with potential, sure. But underneath the effervescence, there’s the dull hum of constant anxiety.

Nicola Dinan was stuck in a rut of her own when she started writing Bellies. Raised between Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, Dinan moved to London by way of a Cambridge degree in Natural Sciences. During a seemingly endless spell of COVID lockdowns, Dinan spent months fleshing out the story while working a full-time law job, and the effort paid off: pre-publication, TV rights were snapped up by the studio behind the Normal People adaptation.

At the story’s core are two narrators: Ming, a well-off Malaysian trans woman with a ruthless desire to make it as a playwright, and Tom, her awkward yet endearing “Moët Marxist” boyfriend. Ming’s voice is quippy, sarcastic, laced with self-awareness and occasional self-loathing; on the other hand, Tom is hesitant and unsure of himself, struggling to identify his true desires and align them with his life choices. The story begins before Ming’s transition, but unfolds leisurely across numerous months and continents, aided by a charismatic supporting cast.

It’s around a month after Bellies’ publication when I chat to Dinan, herself navigating a relatively new life as a literary star. Just after the book came out, she penned an essay about the difficulties of writing trans representation as a trans author in a politically hostile climate; as we speak, she’s on the third round of edits on a second novel, populated by characters who are “a little more jaded” than the protagonists of Bellies.

From your Instagram release day post, it sounds like Bellies was hugely cathartic to write.

The novel came at a time in my life where I was desperately seeking direction, some sense of fulfilment, of enjoyment in what I do. I think you spend so much of your early twenties questioning what you should be doing that you don’t question what you want to be doing. I knew I wanted to do something that brought me a sense of pride rather than dread and shame. For me, that was writing. It certainly wasn’t the job I was doing at the time!

How did Bellies come together?

Bellies started as a short story, but that never saw the light of day, and probably never will –– I don’t think I’m very good at writing them. When I stretched it to a novel, I was able to give so much more. I was wrapped up in the idea that I should publish short stories in prestigious publications to prove I could write a book, but art isn’t a corporate job with a list of responsibilities and qualifications to meet. You can literally just do it. Finding that nobody wanted my short stories made me come to that realisation sooner; that I didn’t need to get these qualifications in order to write a book which, deep down, I already felt like I could write.

There are some heavy themes in Bellies, but they’re all handled with lightness and a sense of humour. How did you decide on that approach?

The hard things in life are often hard enough! The sadness embedded in loss, in breakups, that speaks for itself. I don’t think I need to lean heavily into that as a writer; I have faith the audience will feel that weight anyway. It feels like a waste to not bring a sense of humour to things, because so much of life is really funny. I certainly look back on things in my life that I’d describe as traumatic, and they’ve made me a funny person! So if I have to take the trauma, I’ll take the humour that comes with it, too.

All of the characters feel so fleshed-out and nuanced. How did you go about building their stories?

It’s so funny when you publish a book, because people around you will insist they’re in it. I have to be like, no, that character isn’t you! To me, it was important to acknowledge that every character will have their own journey. So much of the focus when I do interviews is on Tom and Ming, but I love talking about other characters, too.

You have Cass, who struggles with an eating disorder throughout university and struggles with anxious attachment and desire for control. You have Sarah, Tom’s ex-girlfriend, who is learning ways to stop forcing people into being who she thinks they should be. Then there’s Cindy, who is absolutely my favourite character that I will ever write! She’s a love letter to all the Malaysian aunties I grew up with, and she has such an interesting journey which compliments Ming’s so well. She has a lot of insecurity around motherhood, around marrying Ming’s dad following the death of Ming’s mum. Yet she sees so much in Ming that her father is oblivious to, because she’s entering this family dynamic as an outsider.

There’s a generosity to the multiple perspectives of Bellies, because you get to see even questionable behaviour through different lenses.

I’m not a very didactic person. I obviously have a moral code, but I think I have a relatively flexible one, because I like to be sensitive to the struggles of people around me. I didn’t want to write anything that demanded you see a character in a certain way, or that anything a character did was wrong. That’s where the dual perspective works, because conflict gets written in a more judicious way. It’s not just that Ming is awful and exploitative; you see that what she does stems from loneliness. Likewise, you might see Tom from Ming’s perspective, like ugh, this guy’s a dick! He’s not clocking that these things she’s doing to be more feminine might run deeper for her, so as a reader, you just want to shake him into action.

Exactly, even seemingly progressive and well-meaning people can fuck up.

I was really interested in this idea that values which seem strongly-held are often quite flimsy when tested. It’s part of being a young person: you plant the seeds and you’ve got little shoots, but the roots just aren’t that deep. Tom shouts loudly about his values, but he ends up working a corporate job that’s out of kilter with those values. Then he’s like, maybe I’ll start modelling — as if fashion is an ethical, anti-capitalist industry! It just takes time to figure things out.

It’s interesting to see Ming navigate the early stages of her transition, too; the book covers internalised transphobia and the quest for identity in such a refreshing way.

Exactly. She wants her struggles as a trans woman to be acknowledged, but she doesn’t want to be acknowledged only for being a trans woman. There’s a moment in New York where she’s thinking about the plays she could write, and she’s like, maybe I’ll just do trans retellings of ancient plays until I die! There’s a way she wants to leverage and embrace her identity, but she doesn’t want to be seen for that identity alone.

For a lot of trans people, there are concerns around safety and comfort, too. There’s a scene where Ming’s on the bus; she senses a man moving closer, and she feels in her gut like something bad is going to happen, so she gets off. Even if trans people can’t relate to that specific moment, they can identify with that sense of fear. Changing the opinion of trans people is such a Herculean feat that one might wish to just fade away instead.

Ming’s hugely self-aware, too — in the trans support group, she asks Do I Hate This Or Do I Hate Myself? Does this stem from self-loathing, or is this person just really annoying?

It’s often both! It’s that perennial question: would you rather be self-aware and still doing morally questionable things, or would you rather be totally unaware? I don’t think there’s a clean answer.

Bellies are a central motif, a metaphor for intimacy. It feels like that’s the crux of the book.

The title felt so obvious. In the first chapter, Tom lays on Ming’s stomach and listens to the gurgling. It’s such a vulnerable act, to allow someone so close to you. The belly is where the organs are; it’s the softest part of yourself. To metaphorically show your belly to someone is a really special thing. It might end with regret or devastation if it doesn’t go how we’d want it to, but I wanted the novel to impress upon the reader the value of that act.

Bellies is out now.

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