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Image: Tina Tiller. Photograph by Hannah Colen.
Image: Tina Tiller. Photograph by Hannah Colen.

BooksJuly 18, 2023

Writers condemn abrupt cancellation of Asian American Literary Festival

Image: Tina Tiller. Photograph by Hannah Colen.
Image: Tina Tiller. Photograph by Hannah Colen.

Local writers, including poet laureate Chris Tse, were due to fly to the US in a few weeks to take part in a literary festival organised by institutional giant The Smithsonian in Washington DC – until it was cancelled without explanation.

The Asian American Literature Festival was suddenly cancelled last week, leaving 130+ participating writers, funders and organisers across the world with holes in their pockets and many questions. This includes a cohort of four Aotearoa writers and organiser Rosabel Tan, who had been planning the attendance of the Aotearoa contingent since August 2022.

The Festival was due to take place between 4-6 August 2023, with a line-up including local writers Rose Lu, Saraid de Silva, Chris Tse and Nathan Joe, who all form part of the innovative Slow Currents programme, an international Asian diaspora writers workshop that aims to nurture national and international relationships as well as the development of craft.

On Thursday 6 July, Rosabel Tan was in a planning Zoom meeting with her Australian Slow Currents collaborator Leah Jing McIntosh (editor of Liminal Magazine) when they received an email from Yao-Fen You, the director of AALF with whom they’d had no prior contact, that said: “It is with a heavy heart I write to say that due to unforeseen circumstances, we are no longer able to proceed with AALF.”

The email came as a complete shock to Tan, who says: “Only hours earlier, we’d been emailing with the Festival team about one of our events. Everything seemed on track for our arrival in less than three weeks’ time. This decision from above remains devastating and baffling to all of us involved.”

There is nothing on the AALF website acknowledging the 2023 festival or its cancellation. While festivals being forced to cancel is not unheard of, especially during the pandemic, this case has taken attendees by surprise. To cancel at such late notice without offering any insights into the reasons appears to signal that, at best, there’s some catastrophic internal event that can’t be made public for legal reasons; at worst, it’s an institutional display of a monumental lack of care for all involved.

At the time of writing You has not responded to our email inquiry, nor have Tan and the Slow Currents collective received any responses to their emails asking for an explanation, though You had emailed Tan and McIntosh to offer them and their cohort of writers an average of $300 each, which in no way covers the expenses involved in arranging such an exchange.

The combined cost of taking the Aotearoa and Australian cohorts to attend AALF amounts to over $99,000. Creative New Zealand has invested $43,577 through its Arts Grant funding mechanism to support the costs of attending the festival, presenting a strand of programming, and to support an additional 10-day residency. Tan says that both Creative New Zealand and the Australian Council for the Arts have been “super understanding. They know it’s out of our control. They know how unusual these circumstances are.”

The financial fall-out is harrowing enough, but it’s the emotional and professional impact on the organisers and writers that really stings. “It’s genuinely crushing, seeing all that work go to waste for no good reason,” says Saraid de Silva. “It’s also just confusing because it’s so murky and sinister to cancel like this. It seems like it must be motivated out of some kind of hatred, to throw away so many years of preparation and give us no explanation. It makes me feel like no matter how much care and love organisers on the ground put into things, we still don’t matter. Huge institutions will do whatever they want.” 

Poet Laureate Chris Tse adds that: “It’s astounding that a supposedly venerated institution could behave in such an unprofessional manner. This decision undermines the work of dedicated individuals and organisations who have worked hard to create a festival to uplift the Asian diaspora community, particularly when anti-Asian sentiment has been on the rise since the pandemic.”

A collage of international twitter dismay and calls for accountability.

In terms of literary stakes, it has always been extremely hard for New Zealand writers to break into the American market, which makes high-profile events like AALF so sought after. The chance to engage with international audiences, network and begin new collaborations was a big focus for Slow Currents’ attendance at AALF, and to enhance that work, literary advocate and writer Paula Morris was supporting Slow Currents to develop a festival-specific publication that the cohort were going to use to showcase writers from across Aotearoa to US agents, publishers, and festivals. 

An open letter from the “2023 Asian American Literature Festival Partners and Participants” is now being circulated, addressed to staff at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Centre (APAC). The letter writes to “condemn” the cancellation of the festival and calls on “the Smithsonian to be accountable for the harms this cancellation has caused.”

According to the website, the AALF is “is the only festival of its kind: literature meets the museum, where literature comes off the page and takes full, multisensory life – from immersive poetry installations and mystery novel ‘Escape Rooms’ to campfire-style queer ghost stories and workshops on refugee memory work.” 

One silver lining is that the Slow Currents cohort will still be travelling to the US this August to complete the 10-day residency, which is partly supported by the Creative New Zealand funding. Though without the support that the Smithsonian had originally offered, Tan says they will have to re-arrange accommodation plans, as they can no longer afford them. 

You can read the open letter to The Smithsonian and sign it if you wish to. A template letter has been provided if you’d like to support the writers and organisers who were due to participate in AALF 2023. 

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