2023 Asian American Literature Festival abruptly cancelled

19 July 2023

A biennial event, the Asian American Literature Festival (AALF) was first held in Washington D. C., capital city of the United States, in 2017, and then again in 2019. After Covid lockdowns put paid to the 2021 event, organisers and participants were keenly anticipating the 2023 festival, scheduled to take place in August.

But two weeks ago, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), producers of the AALF, abruptly cancelled the 2023 event, citing “unforeseen circumstances”, says Sophia Nguyen, writing for The Washington Post:

The event, produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), was relatively new. But it had already gained a loyal following for its intimate feel and experimental bent, hosting themed escape rooms and calligraphy tutorials alongside the more standard literary fare of readings by best-selling authors. The 2023 iteration was expected to draw thousands of attendees to Washington in early August. But just weeks before writers from across the world were due to land, the Smithsonian abruptly canceled the event, citing “unforeseen circumstances.”

Unforeseen circumstances.

It defies belief an event of this scale, with many people travelling a distance to attend — including a number from Australia and New Zealand — were offered, at least initially, such a feeble line. I can’t imagine anyone not expecting better of an institution such as the Smithsonian.

When contacted for further clarification by WTOP News about the “unforeseen circumstances” resulting in the festival’s cancellation, an APAC spokesperson appeared to imply preparations for the festival were behind schedule:

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.”

But AALF partners and participants rejected the suggestions, in an open letter sent to the Smithsonian, written on Monday 17 July 2023:

On July 14, The Washington Post reported on the cancellation, including an official statement from the Smithsonian alleging that the festival was canceled due to failures in preparation by the planning team. 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 article itself confirms that the allegations are false.

The letter goes on identify what AALF partners and participants see as the actual cause of the 2023 event being cancelled: concerns the Smithsonian have with what they see as “potentially sensitive or controversial content”. In particular, a program exploring the work of trans and nonbinary authors:

Additionally, we are deeply troubled to discover that a driving factor behind the festival’s cancellation might have been the Smithsonian’s desire to censor trans and nonbinary programming. A program intended to celebrate trans and nonbinary authors, as they face unprecedented levels of violence, book bans, and anti-trans legislation, was set to take place at the festival. The Washington Post article reported that the Acting Director instructed the planning team to submit a report under Smithsonian Directive 603 to identify potentially sensitive or controversial content, which she received on July 5.

If correct, this is a disturbing development, at a time when civil liberties are increasingly being questioned, and some minority groups are experiencing elevated levels of vilification. While it is unlikely the cancellation of the 2023 festival can be overturned at this stage, if you feel strongly about the Smithsonian’s decision, you can add your signature to the open letter here.


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