The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) cancelled the 2023 Asian American Literature Festival only a month before it was scheduled to take place, citing “unforeseen circumstances”. Left in the dark, the festival’s scheduled writers, publishers and literary organisations fear the decision could have been politically motivated, perhaps having to do with the festival’s embrace of trans and nonbinary writers and topics.
The Washington Post’s Sophia Nguyen broke the story of the sudden axing of the festival on 14 July. The following day, a court lawyer at the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the museum to release any and all documents pertaining to the festival’s cancellation—as the Smithsonian is largely funded by the federal government, its internal documents are subject to public availability. On 17 July, partners and co-organisers of the festival posted an open letter to the Smithsonian’s leadership and revealed their financial losses due to the cancellation. Concerned groups like The Massachusetts Review and the Authors Guild penned their own outraged open letters. Meanwhile, APAC’s website vaguely acknowledges the cancellation in a banner on its homepage, while its festival page lacks any mention of an event this year.
According to The Washington Post, the literary festival had been “under routine review for controversial content just before the cancellation, though it is not clear whether or to what extent that may have contributed to the decision”. On 5 July, APAC’s acting director, Yao-Fen You, sent an email to some (but not all) of the festival’s partners, apologising for calling it off but offering no explanation. This was the first time some of the email’s recipients had ever heard of (much less from) You, furthering the confusion.
“We had just been talking to the festival team, hours earlier, about really very specific logistics. And it just seemed like it had come out of nowhere,” Rosabel Tan, who was organising a group to travel from Australia and New Zealand for the event, told The Washington Post. She revealed that after You was asked to at least reimburse the almost $24,000 already spent on flights, visas and incidentals for their participants (the Australian and New Zealand governments had invested more than $63,000 in programming for and in conjunction with the festival), the director offered a total of $1,000 in honoraria.
Other partners, including non-profits and small publishers that had already written festival proceeds into their budgets, were shocked, especially those that had participated in previous iterations in 2017 and 2019. A number of writers scheduled to participate in the 2023 festival told The Washington Post that they had only found out about its demise by word of mouth. The poet Ching-In Chen, who was organising a trans and nonbinary reading room, was one of those left off the email.
When approached for an explanation, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson claimed that the festival schedule had not been finalised and organisers had missed critical deadlines for outlining its audiovisual and technical components. “Simply put, the programme was cancelled a full month in advance,” the spokesperson wrote to The Washington Post. “The programme was still in a development stage and we made an administrative decision to cancel rather than present a festival that did not meet Smithsonian standards. No publicity had been done and participants were notified immediately. It was a free event and so there was no issue of refunding tickets. We have nothing further on this.”
In further comments to The Art Newspaper, the Smithsonian spokesperson said, "In recent days, we have heard from participants, collaborators and fans. We hear your confusion, frustration and hurt, loud and clear. We want to stress that this hard decision was made in the best interest of the festival and its participants and had nothing to do with content. The Smithsonian remains committed to sharing the histories and narratives of all Americans, including those in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities."
Organisers and programme coordinators working on the festival have disputed the Smithsonian’s version of events, and according to The Washington Post, emails prove that the festival’s schedule and audiovisual needs had been finalised well before their deadlines. Emails shared with the paper also show that You had requested the festival’s director turn in a draft memo to Smithsonian leadership summarising the event, as all upcoming programming was under review “due to the current political climate” under Smithsonian Directive 603, which identifies anything potentially sensitive or controversial that could cause a public outcry—again, because of the Smithsonian’s association with the US government. On 5 July, the memo was sent to You. That evening, the festival was cancelled.
In their open letter to Smithsonian leadership, festival partners and co-organisers condemn the event’s cancellation, noting that when they “reached out in shock, confusion and distress to APAC staff on the festival planning team, we were told that staff were not allowed to speak to us about the cancellation”. They further rebuke the Smithsonian for blaming them for not being prepared: “From the partners' perspective, everything was on track; we had no concerns with putting on our programmes in a month’s time. In fact, many of us have participated in AALF in years past and have returned due to our confidence in working with this planning team.”
The letter also points to the harm this sudden turn of events has caused: “Since the previous festival in 2019, the Asian American community has experienced increased anti-Asian violence, with trans and nonbinary Asian Americans in particular under siege. The cancellation of the festival compounds the violence our community has experienced. The Smithsonian is not only dismissing our work; it is eliminating the opportunity for our community to come together to grieve and heal.”
After expressing concern that the festival may have been nixed due to its inclusion of trans and nonbinary programming (“We condemn in the strongest terms any attempt to censor any part of our community, especially our deeply vulnerable trans and nonbinary members”), the letter ends with several demands, including that the Smithsonian provide an accurate explanation of its decision to cancel the festival, commit to transparency in the future and to supporting trans and nonbinary writers by reinstating the planned reading room for later this year, pay the full honoraria owed to scheduled participants and reschedule the festival for 2024. They also call for You’s immediate resignation and a staff-driven search for a new director. The letter is signed by more than 70 partners and co-organisers of the festival and over 1,700 supporters, including prominent figures like Jenny Xie, Alexander Chee and Ocean Vuong.
The Smithsonian spokesperson said that the institution is looking into the feasibility of holding a virtual version of this year's festival, and of organising a larger event in 2024.
"This experience has been a reminder to our team that we must continue to strive to communicate with collaborators, supporters and the public in the most transparent and compassionate fashion possible," the spokesperson said. "We apologise for the abrupt way in which news of the postponement was delivered."
The Smithsonian has been in the news a lot recently, and not necessarily for good reasons. In May, the National Museum of African Art found itself looking for a new director for the third time in six years after Ngaire Blankenberg was reportedly encouraged to resign over clashes with the Smithsonian’s administration. And earlier this month, Nancy Yao stepped down from her position as founding director of the forthcoming American Women’s History Museum amid accusations of her involvement in the wrongful terminations of victims of sexual harassment at her former job as director of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America. (The American Women’s History Museum is one of two new Smithsonian museums in advanced planning stages; the other is the National Museum of the American Latino.)
Internal struggles at the various Smithsonian entities have also been publicised recently on the Instagram account Change the Museum, which compiles anonymous complaints of bullying, racism, and toxic work environments at museums across the US. In fact, the open letter to the Smithsonian cites two specific posts from the account that detail what the letter calls “hostile and abusive labour conditions” at both ACAC and the Smithsonian at large.