The Cuckoo Cage: The story behind ‘The M&Ms’ cover image

The Cuckoo Cage: The story behind ‘The M&Ms’

Divya Ghelani is one of the authors featured in our latest protest anthology The Cuckoo Cage, a book that has asked twelve British writers to spawn a new generation of present-day British superheroes from key movements and figureheads in Britain’s protest history.

Divya Ghelani is a writer who holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and an MPhil in Literary Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has published articles/short stories in Wasafiri, BareLit, BBC Radio 4, Litro, Comma Press, and more. Her novel in progress has been longlisted and shortlisted for four literary awards. Divya lives in Berlin where she leads a BIPOC Reading Series for The Reader Berlin and co-hosts a short story club for the UK’s leading literary salon, the Word Factory. Divya is represented by Abi Fellows at The Good Literary Agency.

My British Superhero story, ‘The M & Ms’, is about a teenage boy called Virat who lives in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. When we meet him, he is feeling hurt, depressed, and powerless because his best friend – Martin Marprelete – has been deported to Jamaica as part of a cynical vote-grabbing scheme called The British Values Initiative. He is in his living room, shouting at the Prime Minister on the television, when he realises he can read the Prime Minister’s mind, seeing through his lies. Virat soon finds he can do this with other people too and informs his friends about his new power. Together they use it to threaten the PM to force him to bring Martin home for good. During their quest, the teenagers realise their project is bigger than any one person and decide to take on the government with exciting results.  

This story is inspired by a brief but electric moment of protest in Elizabethan history: the Martin Marprelate controversy, a pamphlet war created by English puritans to attack the control of the Anglican church. The tracts were often satirical and playful and created a large enough readership that the government hired their writers to pen counter-tracts. A key aspect of the controversy was the identity of Martin Marprelete, a long-term subject of speculation, which I wove into my story towards the end. To learn more about this history, see this blog by the wonderful historian Ariel Hessayon, who helped me understand it for my story to come about:

‘The M&Ms’ is set in a dystopian near-future wherein ultra-nationalism is a prominent feature of the government’s strategy, all at the expense of the most marginalised in society. It was inspired by British immigration policies and the jingoistic sentiment behind Brexit and Trumpism. It is about a population’s apathy and the ramifications of surveillance culture.

We aren’t far off the dangerous politics of my story. It was chilling to watch the Windrush Scandal unfold, wherein it was revealed that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been wrongly detained, deported, and denied legal rights. I understood the scandal was not an aberration but by design, an inevitable result of immigration legislation across decades and party-political lines designed to limit the number of non-white people from the Commonwealth in Britain. More recently, the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill as well as the Home Office’s plans to block refugees from entering the UK with taxpayer money, further suggests a belief in government that some citizens are more equal than others, that some humans deserve a home more than others, and that citizenship itself is conditional.

I had always considered Boris Johnson to be a dangerous figure. When I first saw his antics, he made me think of the character of Polonius in Hamlet: a long-winded, shrewd, cynical, verbose, hypocritical, amoral manipulator willing to use any tactic to gain power. When he launched his Brexit campaign as a bid to win control of his party, I wondered what sort of person would instigate such a cynical and racist campaign. I wanted to read his mind to find out what he was really thinking, what he truly believed. I explored this desire in my short story via Virat’s superhero power – an ability to read minds.  

I dislike shouting about issues online and prefer to explore my politics more thoughtfully in my work. The teenagers in this story, however, manage to do both, using social media creatively to critique the government and bring about change. Part of their initial struggle lies in figuring out how to disseminate the information they have gathered about the PM and his henchmen so that the people – manipulated by lies for years – listen and take action. In my version of the Martin Maprelate pamphlet war, the boys use memes, comedy, and satire to engage with the truth behind the lies in ways that activate people towards action. For this, I was inspired by the history of Martin Marprelate but also popular musicians such as The Sleaford Mods and Stormzy in particular, who spoke powerfully about Grenfell Tower and against Boris Johnson’s government. It speaks to my belief in the power of art to pierce falsehoods and make space for the truth.   

The Cuckoo Cage: New Origin Stories is out now. Order your copy here.

Divya Ghelani will take part in the FREE virtual launch of The Cuckoo Cage, taking place Tuesday 15th March on Zoom with lisa luxx and Luan Goldie. Book your ticket here.