1941 poster of the Great Levante, a magician
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1941 poster of the Great Levante (via National Library NZ on the Commons)

I started writing “The Lies You Learned” on a plane ride back to Columbus from California in January. The first line took root in my mind; mesmerized, I opened a new document and began typing, wanting to know more.

But it took me a number of drafts to get the poem to where I wanted it to be. It was originally a poem about diaspora, about losing your mother tongue and having it supplanted by an oppressor’s tongue—but the poem started veering in other directions, so I scrapped that premise.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that that premise transformed. It became less about positioning a mother tongue against an assimilated tongue and more about how we learn to speak about ourselves, and about our position in relation to others. How we come to understand ourselves as racialized subjects, and how that understanding intersects with explorations of sexuality and self-worth, two separate concepts that too often get tied together in unfortunate ways.

The draft sat there for a while, speaking only of the kinds of lies that white supremacy and sexism place on people. But there was a spark, a circuit to the logic, that was missing.

I’m grateful to Alyssa Wong for pushing me to take “The Lies You Learned” one step further: “We see what the illusionist gets from the apprentice,” Alyssa said, “but what does the apprentice get from the illusionist?” That question stuck with me, because it’s not as simple as having lies imposed on us. Sometimes, we can work them to our benefit, use them to play up images that appeal to others, to gain a superficial kind of power.

But it’s never satisfying. It’s never true. It leaves a wrenching in your gut, an ashen taste on your tongue. But if you try to strip yourself of those lies, of white supremacy, or sexism, oh—it’s not easy. It’s a process. And I deliberately left readers with the narrator at the beginning of that journey.

Because the journey never truly ends. But we can still take that first step with others, learn to unravel those lies with other apprentices’ support. Even if I consider myself further along in that journey than I was before, I still find myself falling back into lies and traps, only ever being extricated through the help of friends who can see through to my truths.

This poem is very dear to me and was at times difficult to write because of how personal it was. But I hope that it speaks to others, whether or not you’re racialized in the same way, or gendered in the same way, because the truth is that we all learn lies that need to be excised.

My betas for this piece were Sonja Natasha, Alyssa Wong, and Nicasio Andres Reed. Thank you for your time and support 💓