As her debut book Bellies is released, author Nicola Dinan shares a personal essay about trans art in the age of right-wing populism – and the outsized sense of responsibility placed on marginalised voices
My debut novel, Bellies, has two protagonists. There’s Tom, a white, middle-class Mark Fisher-and-techno-loving boy from south London (sorry). And then there’s Ming, an exuberant playwright from Malaysia who suffers from OCD. They fall in love at university – seemingly as two gay men – but after moving to London following graduation, Ming comes out as trans.
People have told me that Bellies taught them a lot, which is concerning, because I never signed up to be a teacher. Shaping minds in a classroom always seems to come at a great cost, including responsibility, humiliation and haircut slander. The world isn’t a classroom, but in publishing a book with a trans protagonist – and one who transitions in the book – I feel the same anxieties as I would in one. I’m ready for a hostile public, one which might pick apart my appearance rather than my words, but I feel unprepared by the sense of responsibility to teach. The journalistic farce against trans people in the UK, which paints trans women as hyper-femme perverts offering implants to toddlers, heightens this. Rightly or wrongly, however, people learn from fiction – it fills the gaps that facts alone can’t.
What do I owe you as an author? A duty to not misinform, sure – I think we can agree on that. But what does that leave? As a trans author – in representing characters historically excluded from mainstream literature – what do I have to represent? I am perhaps overly conscious of the ways in which Bellies sounds like a Chat GPT novel for Gen Z or millennial readers. Queer love story? Slay. Trans narrator? Queen. Of colour? Confetti cannons. And yet, I’m also ever conscious that Bellies doesn’t fully represent the trans experience. I can’t help but worry Ming’s not the right trans person to learn from.
Firstly, Ming’s transition is bankrolled. She saves money because she and Tom move into Tom’s parents’ house in London after graduation. She also has an inheritance, as well as a well-off dad. She flies over the hurdles many trans people face: she has enough money for surgical intervention, and doesn’t have to bother with inhumanely long waiting times for HRT on the NHS. As a writer, it was refreshing to write queer experiences not mired by structural hurdles, choosing instead to focus on relationship dynamics existing outside of those challenges. I wanted to show that even when you’re holding a royal flush, big changes are hard to make, and new lives are hard to adjust to. In doing so, I think Bellies makes an experience as specific as transitioning feel a little bit more universal. On the other hand, those systemic barriers are the cruel reality for most trans people today.
Ming is also no angel. She is often those things that trans people, and in particular trans women, are accused of: narcissistic, superficial, mean. There’s a scene where she attends a trans support group, only to pick apart the trans women around her. She looks at Sophie, also her age, and thinks “if she could get paid in Juvéderm, then I know she’d take five syringes at the end of the month… I wonder if she knows that all the drag makes her more clockable”. Ming is also ruthlessly ambitious – wanting desperately to make it as a playwright – so much so that she readily puts loved ones on the altar for material.
“What do I owe you as an author? A duty to not misinform, sure – I think we can agree on that. But what does that leave?” – Nicola Dinan
I worry Ming isn’t the voice or representation we need, but I’d also seriously question any work of literature to exhaustively represent any experience of any community. Why should that disproportionate burden fall on an author, just because said author is a minority? I think, however, that the problem often has simple solutions: giving context by situating the novel in the wider world. If a book, set in our reality, may inform a reader’s understanding of one aspect of the world, then why not reflect that world faithfully? In the book, Ming briefly reflects on how being a trans woman of colour scores her “triple jackpot in the hierarchy of oppression”, but also on how financial privilege nullifies a lot of it. Through the reader’s time with Ming, it is clear – I hope – that her wanton careerism is an extension of her deeply held fear of loneliness. Her jabs at Support Group Sophie are just a projection of her self-loathing – boiling in a cauldron of her own feelings of inadequacy. Including context is something I embrace. It’s a way to engage with the world beyond the book, and it often makes for better writing. It doesn’t have to be didactic. In some ways, I would say it shouldn’t be – I often feel like sentences brimming with moral instruction break the fourth wall, as well as patronise the reader.
Some authors are repulsed by the idea that there should be any curbs to creativity – any external force guiding a writer’s hand. Lionel Shriver, in her continuing rally against sensitivity readers, claims that We Need To Talk About Kevin wouldn’t be published in substantially the same way today. She uses the edits made to Roald Dahl’s book (in a separate edition, first edition still existing) as if it was evidence, as if Roald Dahl’s books – aimed at seven to nine-year-olds – capture the same audience as a book about a teenage mass-murderer. I find this strange and moronic.
Firstly, grow up, and secondly, there is a fine line between care and censorship – a line nonetheless – one which a good writer should be able to navigate. Care is often guided by research, whether it be through one’s own reading or that of a sensitivity reader. Tweaks here. Little nods there. It doesn’t have to be that complicated, and at the very least we owe it to readers to try. If making those changes reads as ham-fisted, or as lip-service, then maybe that’s down to the writer’s skill. I don’t understand why anyone would want to write like a baby painting on the living room walls.
However, even I have to admit that there comes a point where authors have to let go – a point at which this very private thing becomes public property, and occupies a space greater than the words on the page, harbouring people’s opinions, praise, criticism and interpretations. Art engages with politics in unexpected ways, and there is a layer of uncertainty that authors must accept. There will always be properly delusional takes from transphobes. But on the other hand, even when we try our best to be careful, hurt can arise unexpectedly. People may demand your book should’ve done more, or less, or not exist at all. Still, listening graciously is much easier if you know you’ve done your best to act with care.
Bellies by Nicola Dinan is out now.