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The Smithsonian cancelled an Asian American Lit Festival. The organizers kept it going


There's a small gathering of Asian American writers happening at Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, D.C. tonight. It's being held by the Asian American Literature Festival Collective, a group of writers, journals and organizations that were originally supposed to hold an event with the Smithsonian. However, that larger event was canceled last month. The reason? The Smithsonian says the planning of the event didn't meet its standards, but the partners say they're not convinced. Joining us now is Regie Cabico. He's a co-organizer of the Asian American Literary Festival Collective and a Washington, D.C.-based poet. Hey, Regie. Welcome.

REGIE CABICO: Hey, Eyder. Thanks for having me.

PERALTA: What happened with the festival this year?

CABICO: So, you know, all of the Asian American writers and organizations - we were convening as early as January this year to really put together a robust, imaginative program which covered everything from children's literature to Asian adoptees to queer and trans and nonbinary writers, among other celebrations of other Asian writers who are traveling from as far as Australia and New Zealand just to connect for this historic event. We were ready to roll with this festival until we got this mysterious email from the acting director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center saying that, with a heavy heart, we must shut down this festival - no reason, but that's all we got.

PERALTA: So in a statement to NPR, the Smithsonian said - and I quote here - "the content of the panel discussions and presentations was never an issue. The cancellation was for administrative/logistical reasons." What's your reaction to that?

CABICO: Well, I find that pretty ridiculous and disingenuous considering that the organizers who I've worked with in 2017 and 2019 put together two festivals to glowing reviews. And we have streamlined this third festival, making sure that everything logistically was ready to roll. It is also that very close to the cancellation email, the Smithsonian had requested a list of programs that could be offensive, and so there were a few programs that could have sparked some red flags for the Smithsonian - the nonbinary reading and the queer reading. So again, they say it's not that, but Smithsonian has not given us a formal conversation to discuss the matter.

PERALTA: How have the writers who were planning on attending - how have they reacted to this news?

CABICO: I think we've been grieving in so many different ways, particularly because the Asian American community has suffered during the pandemic. There's been a lot of anti-Asian violence. It has been hard for writers to connect. And so this would have offered the kind of writing mentorship that is needed. It is also the opportunity for younger writers to meet heroes and mentors and to create lifelong career friendships. So it's devastating, to say the least.

PERALTA: So your collective has still decided to go ahead in a much smaller way with a handful of other events. Why was it important for you to hold those events?

CABICO: Look. I have always believed that Washington, D.C., should be a home for literature and spoken word culture. And whenever there are writers who are gathering, it is a crime to not hear their voice. And the multiplicity of voices are just well-regarded voices. So I think it is an act of resiliency. And just being able to hug and commune and connect in this small way, I think, is healing. So this is a healing. It is bittersweet. It is empowering. It's also a little sad, too.

PERALTA: I understand you brought a piece to share. Will you read it for us?

CABICO: Yes. This is a short poem, and it's from my forthcoming collection called "A Rabbit In Search Of A Rolex." It's called "Smithsonian."

(Reading) We are broken stories, continually breaking, trying to connect with itself, for without this knowledge, we would perish. We are celebrating while climbing an uphill battle just to be who we are. And when the dragon is unleashed on us, we are the ones who create the magic, cast the spells and make the impossible possible.

PERALTA: That's Regie Cabico, a co-organizer with the Asian American Literary Festival Collective. Regie, thank you so much.

CABICO: Thank you so, so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.