The Asian American Literature Festival returns — without the Smithsonian

Main building of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. PHOTO:

Nearly a year after it was abruptly called off with little explanation, the Asian American Literature Festival will return in September, organized by a collective of literary groups – and this time, without the Smithsonian.

Last year, the Smithsonian Asian American Pacific Center (APAC), which curated and funded the biennial gathering, canceled it just weeks before the planned kickoff. Festival staff and outside organizing partners, dissatisfied by what they viewed as the changing rationale for the decision, questioned whether concerns over potential cultural controversy played a role. (The Smithsonian denied that the festival’s contents factored into the cancellation.)

At the time, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and Undersecretary of Museums and Culture Kevin Gover said that they were exploring options for a “virtual event” in 2023 and “larger public event” in 2024, but no further announcements were made. (According to Pamela Baker-Masson, director of the Office of Public Affairs, APAC will open an exhibition about the Chinatown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., this fall and host “an opening festival” focused on the city’s Asian American cultural production and community organizing.)

“We felt really strongly that we had to come back from the cancellation,” said Cathy Linh Che, executive director of Kundiman, a nonprofit that is part of the new festival collective.

Neelanjana Banerjee, Kaya Press. PHOTO: X @NeelanjanaB

“We’re doing it on our own terms,” said Neelanjana Banerjee, managing editor of Kaya Press, another member of the collective. “What’s so exciting is that this is coming out of what was destroyed by the Smithsonian last year – but also, we’ve been drawing connections amongst ourselves, supporting each other and really thinking about what it means to collaborate.”

Striking out on their own comes with one obvious drawback for the festival organizers: funding. “The biggest loss is that we’re having to dig into our own pockets,” said Banerjee, noting that the collective has not been able to secure a comparable funding partner.

“Though there is a new limitation regarding funding, it also offered more freedom in some ways too,” said Che. “We weren’t tied to hosting it in D.C. We were able to think expansively.”

The 2024 festival will take a new format, with hybrid and in-person events hosted in cities across the country; some programs will take place as far away as Australia and New Zealand. (A lineup will be posted later this summer.) This decentralized approach means that the programs will feel more deeply rooted in each city’s particular arts scene, partnering with institutions ranging from new Asian American bookstores to long-running open mics.

“Returning to a more grassroots approach feels very fitting,” said Che. “It’s in line with our values of working with one another, and welcoming in communities that are local to us.”

This opens up a further challenge: making the various readings, workshops and other activities feel like a cohesive celebration of Asian American literature, rather than a diffuse array of isolated programs.

“One of the things I loved about the festival is what you do in your downtime – going out for a drink, or going to pick up books at a table,” said Banerjee. The organizers are still thinking through how to create that sense of community: “How do we try to take some of that, and bring it to these distributed spaces?”

Sarah Park Dahlen, who is organizing children’s literature events for the festival in Champlain, Ill., hopes that in future years, the festival will be able to convene its events in a shared location again. For now, though, “The fact that we’re doing this together, and persisting despite the cancellation, is a way of being in community together.”

The planned 2024 gathering represents a fulfillment of a promise that the participants made each other last summer, when attendees had tried to make the best of the cancellation, hosting scaled-down readings – often with cheeky titles – at local Washington bookstores.

At the end of one of them, recalled Che, they gathered in a circle and committed to finding some way to bring the festival back.

“We put it into the air that we couldn’t wait another four years,” she said. “People really need it. These spaces of gathering are so important.”



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