Award-winning Chicago writer, speaker, and activist Victoria Noe is funny, smart, opinionated, and outspoken. If you don’t believe me, just check out her Twitter feed! Oh, and she’s super cool.
“I’m at an age where I’m not holding back,” Noe said in a recent Zoom call. “There have been times in my life when I have, and I’ve always regretted it. I have always believed, no matter what the subject is, that silence equals death. When you’re silent and you’re on the sidelines and you don’t make your presence known, that’s when bad things happen.”
Viki, as she’s known to her friends (and I count myself luckily among them), has had several careers that she’s found success in: theatre director, stage manager, and administrator; fundraiser; and educational sales representative for Chicago public schools. And now, her fourth career is as an author. She wrote the first book honoring the straight women who held hands, cared for, and fought alongside gay men during the AIDS crisis: Fag Hags, Divas, and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community. Published in 2019, the extraordinary, award-winning volume was released as an audiobook on Oct. 27, 2020. My delightful fellow writer told me all about the evolution of her book from text on a page to spoken word.
“When this book came out, an audiobook wasn’t really a priority for me,” Noe said. “The first six months after it was published, I was so wrapped up in events and publicizing and marketing, I just didn’t need one more thing to do.” At the beginning of this year, she decided that it was time to take steps toward making Fag Hags, Divas, and Moms an audiobook.
In late February of this year, she contacted Findaway Voices to produce the audiobook. Many people encouraged Noe to narrate her own work, but she decided to find a voice professional. “I have a master’s degree in theatre, but I worked mostly as a director and stage manager. I haven’t been on a stage in 40 years!” she said. Findaway sent Noe a selection of five women’s audition tapes to consider. “I listened to them,” she said, “but they didn’t wow me. You’re not necessarily going to find the right person in the first group they send you.”
In March, Noe was in New York City, the first stop on a five-week trip of readings and events all over the East Coast, when the bottom dropped out: The COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. Everything was being shut down and quarantined, and Noe had to return to Chicago. “All my events for the year were cancelled, and I suddenly had nothing to do!” she said. “I felt sorry for myself for a few weeks, and then I went back to this project.”
When focusing back on the audiobook, she honed in on the kind of voice she wanted to read her work. “I wanted someone who was pretty conversational, but also warm,” she said. “You know, this isn’t a romance novel.” In light of the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, Noe decided that the book needed to be recorded by a woman of color. She asked Findaway to send her more audition tapes.
“They sent me five more tapes, this time all women of color, and one really knocked my socks off!” Noe said. That audition tape was Donna Allen’s, a Brooklyn, New York native actress living in Los Angeles. Once attached to the project, Allen sent Noe an email telling her why she was drawn to Viki’s work.
“I, like so many others, lost someone to the [AIDS] pandemic in the early 1990s,” Allen wrote. “While my parents introduced me to the performing arts at an early age, my cousin Ron introduced me to the performing arts when he gave me six weeks of ballet lessons for Christmas at age three. Maybe that’s when I realized I wanted to be a performer. To say I idolized Ronnie is an understatement. He danced professionally for years, working with stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and Lola Falana. After an injury ended his career, he became a lawyer. Geography prevented me from spending time with him then. I came home from California and spent some quality time with him. He was to come to our house for Christmas dinner. Instead, he went to the hospital. The last time I saw him was a few days after Christmas in the hospital. He died in April. My mother, who visited him often, told me there were several women who helped him at the end of his life. I don’t know who they were, but I have been forever grateful. Part of me has always felt guilty for being so far away at the end of his life. When I auditioned for your project, I thought of it as a way of giving back somehow; to honor Ronnie and the women who took care of him, and I’m sure many others.”
“You know,” Noe said, “the most important thing about the book for me is the connections that I made, the friendships that I made. Most of them have come about in a very serendipitous, unplanned way. The women that I interviewed for the book, for them, it was more than just telling their story; it was a chance for them to honor other people. At first, I figured that Donna just wanted to do the audiobook to have a project, but it turned out to be more than that for her, too.”
In addition to the Fag Hags, Divas, and Moms audiobook’s release, Noe has continued lifting up the voices of those friends she made by including them in her blog. A series of 10 blog posts composed between April and June of this year features some of the women in the book exploring living through a second pandemic: COVID-19. Those blog posts will be included in an archive on the National Women’s History Museum’s website.
“The number one response [to the book], whether people reading it are inside or outside the HIV community, is that ‘I learned so much,’” Noe said. “I think it’s a testament for the need for this kind of book, and a need for women to tell their stories.”
Both the audiobook and book versions of Fag Hags, Divas, and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community are available at your favorite indie bookstore or many different platforms including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and more. For more information on Victoria Noe and all her work, visit her website at VictoriaNoe.com.