There’s no fitting women like Erica Vital-Lazare into a box. To her College of Southern Nevada students, she’s a professor of creative writing. To the literary scene, she’s an inspiring force, moving from one blooming project to the next, like the busy and exceptionally brilliant bee that she is.
Vital-Lazare’s literary work has been featured in social justice exhibits citywide, from Left of Center Gallery’s Bending the Arc to West Las Vegas Library’s Like Water Slipping Through Our Fingers to her own evocative photo-essay project, Obsidian & Neon: Celebrating Black Life and Identity in Las Vegas, first shown at the Clark County Rotunda Gallery. Seeking to unearth the marginalized voices of the past, she also helped revive overlooked Black-published fiction through the book series Of the Diaspora, with indie publisher McSweeney’s.
The literary local spoke with us about her upcoming show at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, her early influences growing up and her latest project during the pandemic.
You grew up in Virginia, but spent your summers in Georgia, where you were born. Who was your gateway into literature growing up? My uncle, Meredith. He lived in Philadelphia, he was a flâneur, which is the Haitian word for someone who just travels. When he was 16, he would jump the rails and just go places, and my grandparents wouldn’t know where he’d gone. He wound up in Philadelphia, and when he would come down to visit, he would bring me books that I wasn’t supposed to be reading. I read The Confessions of Nat Turner when I was 10. He brought me The Bluest Eye. He brought me Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. He brought me V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic … He loved to read, and so since the time that I could pick up a book, he would just bring me these gifts. He gifted me this life.
When did you know you wanted to write as much as you read? Maybe in the first grade, but before that I’d write little stories. It started in kindergarten, actually. They’d give you your little journal, and I had it for the longest time. I wrote my first story in one of those.
What was it about? It was about a ballerina onstage, and she falls off. Then she discovers it was just a dream. I think everything I write has this dream life to it. I never thought writing was something people could live in the mortal realm and accomplish. I think that was because I had such high regard for the people I was reading.
Your curated show Seeing/Seen at the Barrick Museum will celebrate Black women through various mediums. What can you tell us about it? It’s an opportunity to do some real work, which is confronting and correcting that hypervisibility and invisibility of Black women. I was surprised and honored when the executive director of the Barrick Museum, Alisha Kerlin, asked me if I wanted to do something. The first thing that came to mind was, I wanted to fill this space with us. I didn’t really have a theme other than to see just our beauty in all its permutations on the walls of the Barrick. I thought of our Obsidian & Neon project that I’ve worked on for about three years with Jeff Scheid, my brother and partner in crime. … This powerful pantheon of Black women is embedded in that project, so I wanted to use a few of those images. I felt it was important to show the work of photographers of color as well. One of those will be Lester Sloan, a revered Black photographer for Newsweek. As part of the Of the Diaspora series, I’m editing a collection of his images, along with the essays of his daughter.
Sounds like you had a lot of freedom. Alisha Kerlin, I’ve known her socially, and I’ve always been in love with who she is and what she does. Anything that I’ve dreamed of for this show, she and her team have supported.
Has that level of support always been this strong in the creative scene? I think it has. … This is a place where on the world stage, our culture is the glitz. There are very real people who love art here and, more importantly, they love community. We could’ve been doing anything, and we would’ve had that collaborative support and excitement behind one another. … A good portion of the creative process, you think you’re acting alone, but in this town, I think there’s always a lifeline. You may not even know that it exists until you’re pulling on it or someone’s throwing it out.
During the pandemic, you put your literary work aside to help another group that needed to be seen, West Las Vegans. I co-founded the Obodo Collective with my friend, Brian Dice. It’s a nonprofit that’s meant to serve the community of the West Side. We’re in a food desert over there, and access to fresh food is limited, if not nonexistent. So we are breaking ground on a half-acre community garden. We’re going to have a working master gardener, along with other gardening resources to produce actual fresh foods that we can sell but also provide for free for the adjacent community. People will be able to donate time, volunteer resources and just be a part of the community and what we hope to contribute there. I feel like so much is going to happen, so many beautiful things on the West Side that we just want to be a part of it.
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