Affection, Vulnerability and Unconditional Love in Bellies by Nicola Dinan
By Eleanor Bowskill, Victoria Bromley, Zarah Yesufu and Hannah McWhinnie
It is difficult to find a novel quite as moving as Bellies. What begins as a typical boy meets boy romance, unfolds as an intimate story about connection, loneliness, and adolescent social pressures. Bellies follows Tom and Ming, who first meet at a university drag night. Shy and self-conscious, Tom is drawn to Ming’s charismatic charm and they naturally fall into a relationship. Shortly after graduation, Ming announces her transition, and the young couple is forced to navigate their relationship during such a sensitive time.
Many novels that navigate discussions around gender, sex and relationships feature a predominantly white experience. Ming provides a fresh perspective on gender transition as a South Asian transgender woman. Dinan skilfully merges Ming’s British lifestyle, with her Malaysian heritage to flesh out her worldview.
Dinan makes clear that Malaysian culture is “extremely diverse” in terms of “religion, race and otherwise,” and the experiences of Malaysians will reflect this variation. It is equally important to mention that Ming is “not necessarily representative of the Malaysian diaspora in the UK” as she holds a British passport and is half white. However, Dinan does still think that the sense of “alienation” from Malaysia that Ming experiences, “first as a gay man and then as a trans woman,” is something countless queer people who have relocated to “more ‘liberal’ countries” can relate to. As Dinan puts it, “Malaysia is one country following a global trend of scapegoating LGBT people for societal ills.”
While Ming’s given name was Michael, when coming over to London for university, she adopted her more Asian name. Dinan discussed how this was both a reflection of Ming wanting to “preserve her heritage through her name” and present as more feminine pre-transition because “it has never felt right” for her to be identified by such an “an unambiguously masculine name.” Yet it also reflects Ming’s grief and “desire to feel close to her dead mother” who called her Ming. It was interesting to discover how Ming “intended to be written with the second tone in Mandarin” which means “bright.” Dinan said that as Ming transitions, “she moves towards the light.”
In the early pages, platonic love, as modelled through best friends Tom and Rob, comes to mean tender cuddles on the couch, affectionate foot rubs, and gentle touches. For Dinan, “Tom and Rob’s intimacy is a really lovely model for male friendship.” In comparison, female friendships can be “doting and affectionate,” and it’s upsetting to think that men often “miss out” on platonic love. She explained, physical touch is “so essential” to our well-being, yet, it’s something men are often “deprived of.”
It’s clear Rob grew up in a family with “lots of roughhousing” but expresses his fondness towards Tom in “a more gentle, caring” manner. In her own experience, Dinan noticed how some straight men are more comfortable “showing affection to gay men rather than other straight men.” She suspects this might be because gay men won’t outwardly call people “gay.”
Bellies frequently asks what we seek from partners in any type of relationship. Ming is critically “aware of how Tom’s experience as a white man informs some of his blunders,” which seems almost inevitable when “dating someone that isn’t you.” Young love seems safe within the confines of a university, but “the tensions of the Big Bad World” challenge what Tom and Ming want in a partner. Much of these difficulties are out of Tom and Ming’s control but are “also the reality of many relationships, queer or not.” Dinan loved writing something that was both specific and universal: “the experience of transitioning and having your partner transition” is one of many obstacles faced in relationships where “no-one is to blame.”
The title Bellies has multiple meanings within the novel, primarily the metaphor of showing someone your belly as an act of vulnerability. For Dinan, “vulnerability underpins much of each character’s journey.” In some ways, she believes Ming’s journey was “simpler” because “Tom provided stability through the early days of her transition.” Whereas Tom “feels so burned by Ming once things fall apart” and holds so much “bitterness and regret” towards Ming’s transition. It’s only when Tom reflects and values his time with Ming that he feels “that he is able to be open again.” But the title also refers to relationships with bodies, “self-image, dysphoria, dysmorphia,” in which Dinan felt that at times Tom and Ming “almost move as one person.”
Food and the experience of eating becomes a channel of expression within the novel and often evokes moments of self-reflection and concerns of body image. The acts of sharing food and piling plates with noodles, rice, and meats are all “gestures of love” and closeness. Yet Dinan notes that “even something as simple as food can become overrun with complex feeling.” Ming’s subjection to feminine beauty standards alters her attitude towards food, whilst Tom cooks char kueh teow for new suitors in a desperate attempt to simulate “what he’d always longed for with Ming.” Through this, Dinan observes that when the act of eating reaches “into memory, then that’s the point at which we begin to self-reflect.”
Ming’s stepmother Cindy loved Ming unconditionally. Dinan believes she’ll never again “write a secondary character quite like Cindy” who was inspired by “all the Malaysian women” she grew up around. While Cindy “often feels on the outside,” she “notices a sadness in Ming” that her father doesn’t. But it’s not until Cindy goes to visit Ming in New York that Ming opens herself up. Through her “Cindy-isms” and non-judgmental character, this is where “Ming sees Cindy as a mother-figure for the first time.” “After all,” Dinan said at the end of our discussion, “what so much of Bellies is about – not only learning how to care for others, but learning how to be cared for.”