In American Diva (Norton, May), Paredez explores the mixed reception given to larger-than-life female performers.

Your book combines elements of memoir and cultural criticism. How did that approach take shape?

I was first looking at the project as a scholar—like, what is the meaning of Rita Moreno’s performance in West Side Story?—but was ultimately unsatisfied with just an argument-driven perspective. Divas ask us to go outside the bounds—which is part of why we’re drawn to them, because they never obey the rules. So, especially as someone who writes poetry and prose, I thought the best way to honor them is to combine memoir and criticism, at the same time pushing against the boundaries of those two genres. The more I spent time with divas, the more I learned from them and believed that was perhaps one of the most appropriate ways to honor them.

How has the term diva evolved over the years?

The term originally referred to a female performer who possessed virtuosic skill, usually in singing and opera. And I noticed over time—
certainly in the course of my own lifetime—how as the term became more commonplace, it came to describe public female figures who were haughty or demanding or generally “messier,” with less of a focus on talent. As someone who was born in the midst of the second-wave feminist movement, I also noticed that the term itself began to express anxieties about the way women were moving into the public sphere. Particularly in the 1990s, there was an effort to repudiate the idea of the diva and simultaneously embrace it in a weird new hyper-marketable way, with “girl power” branding.

You write that the standard for “divahood” is different for women of color. How so?

Women of color have often been disregarded as divas because they’re racialized as too demanding or too loud or beyond standards of conventional femininity. What was striking to me about the Williams sisters [in the late 1990s and the 2000s] was they were outrageously virtuosic on the public stage precisely at a moment when diva girlhood was being promoted, and yet they were vilified for being the very thing that these marketing forces were telling girls they should be. The terms of girl divahood were, of course, very white. The Williams sisters’ extraordinary talents were demonized because they were unapologetic about their greatness; they were not trying to be coy.

Are there any other observations about divas that surprised you?

As much as we see divas as—and as much as they often are—adamantly singular [people] who don’t necessarily play with others, they’ve really taught me to not be afraid of messy and marvelous women, but to be in relation to them. That’s been an important discovery for me.