Exploring love, friendships, grief, existentialism and so much more, Bellies complicates trans storylines as we know them
“My goal is to give everyone the freedom to be a shit person,” writer Nicola Dinan tells oestrogeneration. “I don’t think what fiction should be doing is creating model ambassadors. I actually think what fiction should be doing, or what fiction has the power to do, is effectively create empathy.”
Nicola is referring to the characters she portrays in her debut novel Bellies and why their shitty behaviour is ultimately what makes them so compelling.
Bellies follows, and is alternatively narrated by, gay couple Tom and Ming who, after falling in love at University, jump through a series of hurdles as they step into their careers, navigate challenges tied to their mental health, deal with resurfacing grief and, eventually, face the aftermath of Ming’s decision to transition. However Bellies is not a simplistic trans storyline, nor is it a simplistic love story. We witness both Tom and Ming going through an ocean of conflicting emotions embedded in joy and resentment as they explore what it means to transition and what it means to love a partner who is transitioning. But even more so, Bellies is really a novel about dealing with change, and transitioning is only one aspect of change the two characters deal with. “That’s where the metaphor of bellies as a whole comes in. You have this outer layer, and this hidden inner layer, which represents something else. Defining transition as something more holistic makes it a bit more universal. People might look at transitioning and think ‘wow, this is something i could never relate to,’ but I actually think so much of transness is reflected in other big life changes others go through.”
And that change is experienced by Tom and Ming but also their other relationships which we get to know more and more throughout the novel. Their friends, in particular, allow us to get a clearer understanding of their equally fictional and relatable world. Ming’s best friend Cass is probably someone I also would have been friends with at uni whereas Lisa and Sarah, respectively working in theatre and for a charity, are a lesbian couple I’ve definitely met at Dalston Superstore before; finally, Tom’s best friend Rob is the kind of soft top I would regrettably fall head over heels with. Bellies destabilises our assumptions of what a trans storyline is by showcasing a narrative where transness, or the trans character, doesn’t take centre stage – something so simple yet so rare in our available literature.
Dinan also portrays a sharp analysis of class dynamics. “What I tried to do is subvert certain assumptions we sometimes have about people’s experiences,” she says. “Rob is a straight white man but he’s also the only character that comes from a working class background and the book examines his relationship to work and the pragmatic attitude that he had to take to his career because he wants to be able to support his family. And then we have Ming, who is a trans woman of colour. And in many ways, that’s a jackpot of oppression. But in the book she observes how her class position nullifies a lot of the oppression she might face.”
Dinan’s writing is exceptionally vivid, and it’s hard not to picture her words in visual format. Unsurprisingly, Bellies has already been picked up for a TV adaption by Element Pictures who, unsurprisingly, also adapted Normal People by Sally Rooney. “They understood that this wasn’t just a novel about identity or a novel about transitioning, but that it was an moreso a novel about struggling to make the transition into adulthood in your early 20s,” she says.
Emotional and emotive, Bellies has already cemented itself as one of the most exciting novels of the years and the debut book has already set the foundations for Dinan’s success who, alongside the incoming series, has already started writing her second novel, which we will (im)patiently wait for.
purcase bellies now.