Smithsonian literary fest flagged ‘sensitive’ topics before cancellation

Less than a month before the Smithsonian’s Asian American Literature Festival was to begin, staffers prepared what they considered to be a routine memo discussing programs involving “potentially sensitive issues” that they knew the host institution would want to be aware of in advance.

Among the matters cited in the memo obtained by The Washington Post: a panel about book bans, and two events featuring queer, trans and nonbinary writers.

Hours later, the acting director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center, Yao-Fen You, informed organizers that she had decided to cancel the entire festival because of “unforeseen circumstances.” In the days following, the Smithsonian offered little explanation beyond some concerns with the draft status of the program and the audiovisual setup.

The Smithsonian denies that the memo, or any of the subjects it raised, factored into the cancellation. “We want to stress that this hard decision was made in the best interest of the festival and its participants and had nothing to do with content,” wrote Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and Under Secretary of Museums and Culture Kevin Gover in a statement sent to participants by email and posted on social media Thursday. “The Smithsonian remains committed to sharing the histories and narratives of all Americans, including those in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander and LGBTQ communities.”

Read more: Smithsonian abruptly cancels literary festival

Participants, who expressed frustration with the Smithsonian’s shifting explanations for its decision, say they still wonder whether concerns over cultural controversy played a role. The festival’s cancellation took even key partners by surprise and has caused a public outcry — including the release on Monday of an open letter from prominent writers and leaders of arts organizations condemning the decision and calling for You’s resignation.

The festival, first held in 2017, was produced and funded by the Smithsonian and planned in collaboration with various arts organizations. Staffers prepared the memo as part of a review process called Smithsonian Directive 603, which aims to help museum officials identify programs that may have sensitive content and to plan for public reaction. Although this would be the first time the literary festival had gone through this process, APAC staffers had completed SD 603 reviews for other events. You emailed them in June saying that they should expect to meet with the SD 603 committee July 18 to “discuss any potential concerns that might arise during or after” the festival, and to “determine mitigation strategies for each concern.”

Following prompts provided by You, festival director Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis drafted the memo, outlining several events and explaining how their content was “being contextualized both intellectually and physically.” (Davis declined to comment and said all inquiries should be directed to You.)

The memo identified four programs with potentially controversial content, according to a draft obtained by The Post. One was “Pee Poems,” an exhibition of poetry broadsides, translated from Chinese, that would be posted near the venue’s first-floor restrooms. The memo noted: “Some viewers may find the content sophomoric and irreverent.” Another was a panel discussion by authors of children’s literature about book challenges and bans, “a current hot button topic in education and library spaces across the country.”

The third was a literary showcase, part of a long-running, D.C.-based reading series called “Queer Fire,” that would include poetry readings and a theatrical performance “exploring queer identity, gender identity, and queer romance, topics some audiences may find uncomfortable.” The fourth, which the memo called “potentially the most sensitive of the festival’s offerings,” involved a “Trans and Nonbinary Reading Room,” a library station highlighting trans and nonbinary writers, accompanied by a small-group reading session.

“We anticipate this program being the most potentially sensitive of the festival’s offerings,” Davis wrote. “In this current moment, books by trans and nonbinary authors and about trans and nonbinary experience are being banned by libraries and school systems across the country. We know some visitors may find these books objectionable, this program uncomfortable or even offensive.”

Davis added that although some attendees might find such content “uncomfortable,” organizers would ensure that it would be presented “in a way that does not demean the viewpoints of these audiences or make them feel forced to engage” with this programming. Such visitors would instead be directed to sessions where they would feel “most comfortable engaging.” The memo continued: “We will message widely and consistently that AALF is a space of mutual respect, including respect for differing and even conflicting viewpoints, with room for a broad range of experiences and worldviews.”

The poet Ching-In Chen, who curated the reading room and had given a talk about trans literature at the 2019 festival, said it was difficult to hear that this event had been brought up for Smithsonian review: “It’s really challenging getting told that, you know, your body, your identity, your community is controversial for existing.” But the news was not a surprise, “especially in today’s political climate.”

Chen said that when Davis called to say that there would be a review, the festival director treated it as fairly standard.

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“My understanding was that it was a routine thing, that had to happen, but that it was more about the Smithsonian anticipating any pushback that it might get around the programming — not that the programming might not be able to happen,” Chen said.

Regie Cabico, the host of “Queer Fire,” described the review and the handling of the cancellation as a marked departure from his previous “very positive” experiences with the festival and with other Smithsonian programs: “I’ve never encountered anything like this.”

“I love the Smithsonian,” added Cabico, “except now I am really questioning what they’re going to do and how they’re operating.”

In an email to The Post on Friday, You wrote: “The reason for not moving forward at this time was that the administrative systems required for a successful Smithsonian festival for both the presenters and the audience were not ready.” She wrote that incomplete purchase orders prevented the Smithsonian from securing audiovisual services and other key contracts. “This was a very difficult decision that both the Under Secretary for Museums and Culture and I had to make,” she wrote.

You also wrote, “As someone who immigrated from Taiwan at a young age, Asian American literature was formative to my own identity.” She looked forward to supporting APAC’s “compelling and cutting-edge programming” in the future, she wrote.

Festival staffers called these reasons “implausible” and a “deflection” from what they view as the true rationale for the cancellation.

Kate Hao, who had a contract with the Smithsonian to work on the festival’s core planning team, said that she and her colleagues were finalizing logistical details on a timeline comparable to festivals in 2017 and 2019.

“There was no communication from Yao-Fen, to my knowledge, from my position on the team, about any concerns with the state that things were in,” Hao said.

The procurement process for Smithsonian programs is often lengthy, said another APAC staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “If you audit Smithsonian programs that occur around the institution, you will find that POs [purchase orders] are rarely ever executed a month before an event.”

In its statement Thursday, the Smithsonian said that it is “exploring other options, including a virtual format for this year and a different and larger public event for next year.”

“This experience has been a reminder to our team that we must continue to strive to communicate with collaborators, supporters, and the public in the most transparent and compassionate fashion possible,” Bunch and Gover wrote. “We apologize for the abrupt way in which news of the postponement was delivered.”

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