More than 1,100 scholars, poets, writers, and supporters have signed an open letter outlining concerns and demands directed at the Smithsonian Institution after the abrupt cancelation of the 2023 Asian American Literature Festival (AALF). The letter, written by AALF partners and participants, alleges that the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center’s (APAC) notice of the event’s cancellation just one month before it was set to take place shows “a flagrant lack of accountability for the harm caused” to both APAC staff and festival participants.
“The festival in previous years has created an unprecedented opportunity for Asian American and Asian diasporic writers to build community and reach new audiences; the cancellation is detrimental not only to the careers of these artists and the futures of these organizations, but also to the wider literary community and the Asian American community as a whole,” reads the letter, whose signatories include poets George Abraham, Nellie Wong, and Wo Chan, illustrator Matt Huynh, and authors Ryan Lee Wong, Debbi Michiko Florence, and Melanie Conklin.
The letter also calls for the “immediate resignation” of APAC Acting Director Yao-Fen You, who sent an email notice of the event’s cancelation to only a fraction of involved participants on July 5. Per You’s email, the festival’s third iteration, slated for the weekend of August 4, would not be taking place “due to unforeseen circumstances” with no further explanations, the Washington Post reported last Friday. Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas informed the Post that the festival was canceled because it “was still in a development stage” and “could not be executed to the [Smithsonian’s] high-level standards,” stating that “the festival organizers were unable to prepare a full packet of confirmed materials” by a specific date. St. Thomas also stated that “no publicity had been done and participants were notified immediately.”
But in conversations with Hyperallergic, members of the team and participants who worked with them refuted any claims that the program was still being developed.
Cathy Linh Che, executive director of the NYC-based literary nonprofit Kundiman, said that the Smithsonian’s claims about the event’s planning stage are “false” and that the schedule had been finalized by early May. These accounts were corroborated by contracted program coordinator Kate Hao, who worked on the event planning team from February 2023 till July 5, when she received her stop work notice from the Smithsonian minutes after You’s cancellation notice went out.
Hao told Hyperallergic that she had never communicated with You, expressing her frustration and confusion with the abrupt cancellation.
“I was a core member of this team, and didn’t hear from You once,” she said. “If there were true concerns about our progress, why didn’t she reach out? Why did she decide to cancel with absolutely zero notice or good faith engagement with the planning team in the lead-up to the decision?”
Hao also noted that St. Thomas’s statement that no publicity had been done for the event was “demonstrably false,” pointing to APAC’s “save the date” Instagram post about the event that went up on June 1 and was reposted by several would-be participants. She also reiterated that not every participant was notified of the cancellation — herself included. “It was APAC operations staff who forwarded [You’s] notice to me,” she said.
The open letter’s first demand called on the Smithsonian to recant on the “public statement blaming festival planning staff” for the event’s cancellation and to issue “a real explanation.”
The letter also speculates that the event may have been canceled in part because of the trans and nonbinary content included in the program. On July 5, planning staff provided You with a document consisting of all of the scheduled programming, which included the Trans and Non-Binary Reading Room spearheaded by nonbinary trans poet and writer Ching-In Chen, to be vetted for sensitive or controversial content per the Smithsonian Directive 603. You sent her cancellation notice that evening itself, prompting questions from some participants.
Hyperallergic has reached out to the Smithsonian regarding these claims.
“The timing is suspicious,” Chen told Hyperallergic. “I know that staff has had to submit the program report for previous iterations of AALF and got approval without a problem, so this raises questions.”
“I participated in AALF 2019, where I was a co-speaker for the Secret Histories talk,” Chen explained. “I had issued a challenge to our community to teach and include more trans and nonbinary voices and stories and writers. The Trans and Non-Binary Reading Room was going to spotlight that work during the festival, and I think it was a testament to the planning team’s commitment to incorporating that in this year’s iteration.”
The letter also calls for the Smithsonian Institution to host the Reading Room as a standalone event later this year. Other demands include promises of a 2024 iteration of AALF, more transparent and collaborative decision-making processes for the festival moving forward, and full honoraria and paid accommodations at the hotel venue for all participants who aren’t able to cancel their travel plans.
St. Thomas told Hyperallergic that an updated statement addressing the open letter is forthcoming. Planning team members employed directly by APAC could not immediately comment on the letter.