As we seek to trouble the boundaries between normal/abnormal and sane/insane, we must consider madness as performative. I take seriously Margaret Price's question in Mad at School: "If you are crazy, can you still be of sound mind?" (1). Her question, laden as it is with the stigma of being 'out of one's head,' forces us to consider the multi-dimensionality of being perceived as mad. As we think through these questions, we must begin to examine how the performance of so-called craziness and an embrace of labels like "mad" affects the way we understand women of color. Deborah Vargas's Dissonant Divas: The Limits of La Onda and Aisha Lockridge's Tipping on a Tightrope: Divas In African American Literature provide a way to imagine the diva as a transgressive figure and as part of a transgressive performance that women of color mobilize to escape the racist and sexist confines of so-called normalcy.

Lockridge claims that the diva performs madness or outrageous behavior as a way to shift the spotlight away from racist and sexist discourse. Vargas argues that the dissonant diva troubles the heteronormative masculinist discourse present in discussions of Chicano/a music. Both projects proffer an examination of the diva as a figure whose affiliation with madness allows her to escape racist and sexist discourse. I find these arguments compelling for several reasons. First, madness as performance and a willful affiliation with being mad disrupts the traditional understanding that pathologizes putative mad behavior. Second, when viewed as a strategy for women of color, the performance of the diva suggests that disability might operate as a strategy to navigate the world of racism and sexism. In invoking diva behavior as a strategy, both authors lay claim to madness as a form of empowerment.

Lockridge defines the diva as one who performs "one's identity for a limited audience in a mixed and potentially hostile space" (4). In defining the diva as "more than a title […] a mode of expression" (5), Lockridge makes clear that the performance is a distraction cultivated so that the diva can "solidify her position, a position which her race and gender usually dictate as unreachable" (7). The diva is "created through the fiction of the real and the imagined" (8) and as such can imagine herself as free from the constraints of racial uplift ideology and W.E.B. Du Bois's Talented Tenth ideal. Lockridge's discussion dialogues with Disability Studies in two ways. She rightly locates the performance of madness within a tradition of African American literature that includes figures who embrace non-normative behavior like Nella Larsen's Helga Crane, Zora Neale Hurston's Janie, Toni Morrison's Sula, Spike Lee's female protagonists, and Ntozake Shange's Liliane. For example, in her chapter on Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lockridge asserts that Janie lays claim to a diva status by demanding healthy sexual companionship from her mates, an assertion that causes two of her three husbands to look askance. Regardless of her ability to secure these from her companions, her diva status comes as a result of her attempt, not necessarily her success. Lockridge argues that these divas' "performances of survival" (9) dismiss others' ideas of acceptable behavior and embrace madness as a way to negotiate prescriptions for black women's behavior. In addition, Tipping on a Tightrope provides a much-needed paradigm for examining the madness of black women. In that paradigm, the tantrums of Naomi Campbell stand alongside the artistry of Shange's Liliane. The diva lays claim to her title because she is not only the "glamorous, beautiful projection of the difficulty of being a Black woman in America" (8). Lockridge's text reveals that the diva maintains this projection and hard exterior because the outside world is perhaps unwilling and may be unable to examine her too closely—wedded as it is to racist and sexist paradigms. I would add that given the performance of madness, diva behavior relies on ableism as a hindrance to others' ability to look past the misdirection that allows the diva to control her life and livelihood.

Vargas's Dissonant Divas argues for the diva as a disruptive figure and "offers a new analytic of border cultural production that is usually rendered through hetero masculinist logics of resistance and subordination" (ix). Though Vargas does not articulate the diva's behavior as a performance strategy, her work claims the term "from its now gay camp sensibility or its derogatory reference to women of color who are said to be too much, too dramatic, too demanding" (xv). Vargas reworks these ideas of excess to point to the dissonant diva as one who shifts the sonic landscape of Chicano/a music based on her gender bending and insistence on her own subjectivity. Vargas examines eight figures within Chicano/a music including Rosita Fernandez, Chelo Silva, Eva Ybarra, Ventura Alonzo, Eva Garza, Selena Quintanilla Pérez, Gloria Ríos and Girl in a Coma. Much like Lockridge, Vargas "aims to draw attention away from descriptors of women of color musical figures as embodiments of excess that often dismissed struggles and negotiations with systems of power" (xv). Vargas understands the diva as dissonant because the diva re-inserts gender and queerness into a sonic landscape that tends to privilege masculinity and patriarchy. The dissonant diva also forces us to reconsider how we understand the United States as a nation state.

Dissonant Divas speaks to several strains of discourse within Disability Studies. First, Vargas's reading of these figures provides a historically contextualized lens through which to understand Chicana musicians as involved with complex negotiations around nation-building. Of Rosita Fernandez, Vargas writes "to remember Rosita requires us to remember the Alamo" (1) and proves is that the reverse is also true: to remember the Alamo requires us to remember Rosita. Though Dissonant Divas does not explicitly engage disability or madness, this work offers not only a way to read Chicana figures with an intersectional analysis, but also a way to understand their performance strategies as impacting current discourses of citizenship, gender, class, ability, and sexuality. For these figures, it is the perception of madness that stymies others' desire to remember their contributions to the sonic landscape. For example, despite the clear cultural memory of Selena Quintanilla Pérez, there is still too little attention paid to the way her behavior disrupted the sonic and visual landscape because others considered her performance non-normative. Instead, Selena is more palatable when figured as a change agent rather than a transgressive figure. Vargas reminds readers that Selena was illegible to her Spanish-speaking audience (in Matamoros) based on her dance moves and style. Selena chose to reify that illegibility by asking them in English, "Am I bothering you?" (191). In other words, Selena had to be considered mad to become who she was. Each woman did.

Tipping on a Tightrope and Dissonant Divas offer a set of lenses through which to read women of color characters and figures with an eye toward their putative madness as performative. These critics open up the space to understand how performances of excess allow women of color to negotiate competing ideas of racism and sexism. Yet, these studies do not uncritically accept ableism as a strategy for negotiation. They recognize that the labels "crazy," "mad," and "disruptive" attempt to pigeonhole women of color into discourses of excess that reify racist and sexist ideology. Each text understands the perception of madness or the mad figure as operating from a position of power. For Lockridge, owning the diva becomes a way to reinvent oneself and to attain power in the face of institutional structures that prohibit it. For Vargas, recasting the diva as integral rather than peripheral celebrates her interventions in a hetero-masculinist arena.

Since Tipping on a Tightrope focuses on African Americans and Dissonant Divas on Chicanas, taken together, the two books demonstrate that the intersectional analysis of one group of women of color cannot substitute for another. Lockridge situates the diva between the rock of racial uplift ideology and the hard place of Du Bois's notion of the Talented Tenth. As such, the (Black) diva must negotiate the particular complexities of African American intra-racial dynamics. The diva presents a challenge to the perceived racial obligation of collectivity and community building. By contrast, within Vargas's discussion, the (Chicana) diva exposes both the pitfalls and the possible potential of working within a racial community. Inasmuch as Vargas's diva is constrained by the requirements of community, she is also credited with helping to define and solidify that community against US-centric national narratives. Lockridge's discussion asks Vargas to consider the diva as loner—by choice or necessity, as Tipping on a Tightrope configures the diva as somewhat elusive. In turn, Vargas's book asks Lockridge to contemplate the diva as part of a community—by choice or necessity, imagining the diva in terms of her presence within a specific cultural context. Both discussions ask us to consider the diva in her full glory: entwined with historical, racial/ethnic, gender, sexual, and disabled narratives, but not beholden to them.

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Copyright (c) 2013 Therí A Pickens



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