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Smithsonian cancels Asian Am Literature Festival, shocking organizers

Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) canceled the 2023 Asian American Literature Festival (AALF) just one month before it was scheduled to start, citing “unforeseen circumstances,” The Washington Post reports.

130+ participating artists and organizers from around the world are in shock over the abrupt cancellation, which came hours after internal correspondence shared with The Post indicated that the event was under routine review for “controversial content.” It is unclear whether this review was a factor in the decision behind the festival’s cancellation.

“It is with a heavy heart I write to say that due to unforeseen circumstances, we are no longer able to proceed with AALF,” Yao-Fen You, the APAC’s acting director, wrote in a July 5 email to festival partners, according to The Spinoff.

The decision to cancel the festival was made “after thorough analysis of the program status” which found that festival organizers were too far behind schedule, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson Linda St. Thomas told The Post.

“Simply put, the program was cancelled a full month in advance,” she wrote. “The program 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.”

Partners involved in the festival’s organization dispute this account of the timeline. In a July 17 open letter addressed to Smithsonian leadership, 70+ undersigning festival partners and participants condemn the Smithsonian’s statement, which they say “unfairly blames the festival planning team and deflects attention away from the true problems here: the Smithsonian’s unilateral decision-making and the harm it has caused.”

“[F]rom the partners’ perspective, everything was on track; we had no concerns with putting on our programs in a month’s time,” the letter reads. “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 open letter also links to a growing document outlining the immediate financial costs that the festival’s cancellation has incurred for participants. These costs come in the form of transportation, accommodation, materials, visa applications, lost income and more.

Compensation from the Smithsonian, in the cases where it has been offered, is not nearly enough to cover the financial costs. The Australian and New Zealand governments invested $63,600 in funds for events and programs at and around the festival. When Leah Jing McIntosh and Rosabel Tan, leaders of a delegation of 10 authors representing the two countries, requested a reimbursement of about $24,000, You responded with an honorarium of $250 for McIntosh and $750 for Tan, according to The Post.

The costs of the cancellation are not only monetary, however. For many participants, AALF represents a meaningful and necessary space for the Asian American community—one that has now been denied without proper explanation.

“The cancellation of the festival compounds the violence our community has experienced,” the open letter states. “The Smithsonian is not only dismissing our work; it is eliminating the opportunity for our community to come together to grieve and heal. The material losses resulting from this cancellation are significant, but the losses to our spirit are just as meaningful.”

The letter also expresses concern over what it perceives to be “the Smithsonian’s desire to censor trans and nonbinary programming.” The review of the festival’s programming for “sensitive or controversial content,” which was submitted on July 5 just hours before organizers were notified of the festival’s cancellation, noted a program intended to celebrate trans and nonbinary authors.

“The timing of the cancellation, hours after the submission of that report, which noted the trans and nonbinary program, raises disturbing questions,” the letter reads. “We condemn in the strongest terms any attempt to censor any part of our community, especially our deeply vulnerable trans and nonbinary members. There is no Asian American community without its trans and nonbinary members; there is no Asian American literature without trans and nonbinary writers.”

For the signatories of the open letter, the festival’s unilateral cancellation by the Smithsonian is emblematic of a larger pattern. “This cancellation communicates to us that the Smithsonian does not feel accountable to partners and community, does not work collaboratively, and does not care about how it harms people, particularly communities of color,” it reads.

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