The Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center abruptly canceled this year’s Asian American Literature Festival weeks before it was scheduled to begin.
The center added a blue and white banner to its website with a simple message: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, AALF 2023 Ghost World has been canceled. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.”
Officials didn’t provide additional information about the cancellation online, but Ghost World — the theme of this year’s festival — is no longer on the calendar for early August.
Why the Asian Pacific American Center says it canceled
WTOP reached out to officials with the center on Monday to ask if the festival was planning to reschedule. Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, said the event planning process “did not meet Smithsonian expectations” and the institution’s “goals for an in-person event.”
“After careful review, and to fulfill our commitment to Asian American communities in the best light possible, the decision was made to explore other options, including a virtual format for this year and a different and larger public event next year to increase our local and national reach,” St. Thomas said in an email to WTOP.
St. Thomas said the decision wasn’t made lightly but was made “with the best interest of the festival and its participants in mind.”
“Most importantly, our commitment to Asian American communities is unwavering and one that we respect, care for and deeply appreciate,” she said.
Criticism from some organizers over cancellation
In an open letter shared Monday by more than 70 festival partners and participants, and hundreds of supporters, the group condemned the decision to cancel the literary event. Those working on this year’s festival took issue with the explanation given by officials, claiming that alleged event planning issues “are false.”
“We must rebut this immediately: from the partners’ perspective, everything was on track; we had no concerns with putting on our programs 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 said.
Addressing Smithsonian leaders Lonnie Bunch, Kevin Gover and Yao-Fen You, the group highlighted a July 6 effort to overturn the cancellation. On July 13, the group said You sent individual offers to pay a portion of what participants would have been due if the festival continued as scheduled .
The letter stated an explanation was still not given to participants and caused real damage to the career of artists, the future of organizations and the broader Asian American community.
“We are deeply concerned that the Smithsonian’s statement 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. Blaming the festival planning team also compounds the ongoing hostile and abusive labor conditions that APAC staff face,” the group wrote.
They also said the cancellation dismissed their work and compounds the already high violence against Asian American communities.
“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 group said.
Citing a report from the Washington Post about the cancellation, signatories to the letter said acting director You requested to identify “potentially sensitive or controversial content, which she received on July 5.” That report allegedly “noted the trans and nonbinary program” as a potentially controversial item under the institution’s exhibition directive.
Signatories said the event focused on trans and nonbinary authors as they face “unprecedented levels of violence, book bans and anti-trans legislation,” the letter said.
“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,” the group said.
The open letter demands that Smithsonian leadership go about retracting statements about canceling the festival over issues with planning and provide all promised honoraria and housing for those who still have to travel to the District.
They also request the resignation of Yao-Fen You from the position of acting director of APAC, a promise to reschedule and fully fund the literature festival in 2024, assurances of support and transparency in decision-making processes and support for trans and nonbinary writers. The final request would be fulfilled with a stand-alone Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room event before the end of 2023.
“The cancellation, its unprofessional execution, Smithsonian’s bad-faith public statement, and APAC’s egregious labor conditions make it clear that we cannot work with APAC under its current leadership, nor can we work with the larger Smithsonian with current APAC leadership in place,” the participants and partners said in the letter.
Group members also outlined the monetary cost incurred after the Smithsonian canceled the event and offered only partial honoraria.
Among them, leaders at Kaya Press publishing company said they budgeted for roughly $22,000 in income from the festival, and roughly $7,335 has already been spent across staffing, commissioned work and travel costs.
“This is a huge loss to us, again, as a small but important Asian Pacific American nonprofit who counts on events and collaborations such as the AA Lit Fest,” Kaya Press wrote in its cost summary.
A future date for a virtual or in-person event has not been made public by the Smithsonian Institution or the Asian Pacific American Center.