color photograph of a paneled glass door with a large vertical banner sign to the left reading "2019 Asian American Literature Festival." People are visible through the glass panes and open door walking around several tables
(Photo by slowking4 via Wikimedia Commons)

Since the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s abrupt cancellation of the annual Asian American Literature Festival last month, organizers and community supporters have sought to hold APAC and the Smithsonian at large accountable for its unilateral decision to cancel the festival, which caused tens of thousands of dollars in financial losses for partner organizations and invitees. 

Beyond monetary loss, Asian-American writers involved in this year’s festival programming are also dealing with the emotional toll the situation has wrought. Some organizers have voiced suspicion that specific portions of this year’s programming—most notably a Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room—could be part of why the festival was canceled. 

On July 5, an email from APAC’s Acting Director Yao-Fen You notified organizers that the festival would no longer continue due to “unforeseen circumstances.” According to The Washington Post, You sent the email after staffers submitted a report flagging “potentially sensitive” issues in the festival’s programming. The report, which Festival Director Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis submitted at You’s request, cited a handful of events, including the Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room. That event was described as “potentially the most sensitive of the festival’s offerings” due to the growing book bans targeting transgender and nonbinary authors. You sent out the email formally canceling the festival hours after Davis submitted the report.

Ching-In Chen, the Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room’s curator, was among the curators who learned about the cancellation from other community partners after the email’s distribution, which did not reach Chen directly. 

“I think everyone was confused,” said Chen. “I was upset because I’d spent a lot of time making the [reading] list, talking to the bookstore, talking to River [Ying Dandelion], talking to everyone else who was going to be at the festival.” Chen lost more than $2,000 in curation fees and travel and accommodation expenses covered by APAC as a result of the festival’s cancellation. Another $500 that was committed to purchasing works from the trans and nonbinary writers featured in the reading room was lost too. 

Transgender poet Yanyi, a regular festival contributor and a curator for this year’s programming, said the cancellation felt “out of the blue” since he was still in regular contact with other coordinators and APAC staff as of late June. Like other attendees, Yanyi planned his August schedule around the AALF with a separate trip to connect with his publishing team in New York. He lost his honorarium for curating the event, but more importantly, Yanyi said, he lost a chance to commune with his literary peers.

“[During the pandemic] I did writing sessions for Asian diaspora writers; I ran a poetry manuscript workshop,” Yanyi said. “You can imagine the wonder of how much an entire group of us can create for our community. And to have that taken away from the public really so suddenly is, it’s just the worst.” (The Smithsonian is the festival’s largest sponsor but does not own the rights to the events.)

After an initial backlash, the Smithsonian released a statement saying that the festival was postponed to a later date and that it was due to logistical shortcomings which “did not meet Smithsonian expectations for hosting a successful in-person event.” Those claims have been disputed by organizers involved in the festival’s coordination. 

“I think it’s a complete abuse of power for [APAC’s] acting director to have unilaterally suddenly canceled the Asian American Literature Festival in this manner,” said Cathy Linh Che, the executive director of the literary nonprofit Kundiman, a longtime festival partner. “To claim A/V issues when we had run this twice before, including once at the Eaton hotel, and the Eaton had already been long booked, is also outrageous.” 

Since its dismantling, festival partners like Kundiman have launched an accountability campaign against APAC and the Smithsonian under the AALF Collective. The collective’s open letter addressed to APAC and the Smithsonian leadership has gathered more than 2,300 signatories so far. It features a list of demands to repair the working relationship between the institutions and festival partners, among them calls for the Smithsonian to pay organizers and performers the full funding that was agreed upon and demands for You’s resignation. (You did not respond to a request for comment from Prism.)

The open letter also called for the Smithsonian to commit funding for a Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room later this year, following suspicions that the festival’s dismissal might be connected to its trans and nonbinary-focused event. 

Chrysanthemum, a poet and festival curator who was invited as part of the reading room, said she was frustrated but ultimately not surprised by how the festival’s cancellation played out, given its visible trans and nonbinary authors event this year. 

“We should have expected this in this particular moment, knowing that the Smithsonian may have been more cautious of upsetting potential funders or other groups that may magnify the situation,” said Chrysanthemum, pointing to the recent hysteria over the queer-centric marketing campaigns by brands like Bud Light and Target. Chrysanthemum was the first trans woman to become a finalist of the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2016 and, as a result, received a torrent of transphobia. She expressed skepticism over the postponement of the AALF, as she and other organizers have not been included in any plans for an event at a later date.

“This walking back of the cancellation [by the Smithsonian] indicates to me that the vision of the festival organizers and the community of writers at large did not align with the interests of the Smithsonian leadership,” Chrysanthemum said. “It felt like an intentional decision to sacrifice community belonging over politics.”

The AALF brandished a unique reputation over the years for its creative programming, which pushed the bounds of literary art through experimental exhibitions highlighting Asian-American artists, such as interactive literary lounges, experimental salons, and themed escape rooms. More than that, those involved in previous years said its programming had always involved queer artists. 

Chen’s idea to bring an event highlighting transgender and nonbinary Asian-American authors to this year’s festival had been part of ongoing discussions with Davis since 2019, Chen said. The Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room would feature a display of publications by Asian writers who identified as transgender or nonbinary for visitors to purchase. Additionally, there would be readings by authors and a special mentorship panel with Chen’s former mentee, Dandelion. 

“I also situate it in the context of a country that is systematically, legislatively targeting and attacking trans and nonbinary queer people,” Dandelion said of the event’s significance. “I think our art in itself is resistance to that … And to have a gathering of people who are all doing that to some extent is also in itself an act of resistance and power.”

Yanyi also worked with Davis, whom he described as an “incredible advocate” for experimental and inclusive programming. Following their discussions, Yanyi established an archival workshop that would examine old journals from the archives of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, another festival partner.

Reached for comment about allegations of potential censorship due to the festival’s trans and nonbinary authors event, a spokesperson told Prism by email that the Smithsonian “does not censor staff or guest speakers at our events. The content of the panel discussions and presentations was never an issue; the cancellation was for administrative/logistical reasons.” Meanwhile, APAC’s You, the first to pull the plug on the festival, did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. 

Despite the challenges, Chen plans to organize an independent event centering trans and nonbinary writers in the fall, working with Chrysanthemum and other transgender artists to ensure its success.

Natasha Ishak is a New York City-based journalist who covers politics, public policy, and social justice issues. Her work has been published by VICE, Fortune, Mic, The Nation, and Harvard's Nieman Lab...