Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Toni Morrison famously said, in answer to why she started writing—"I wrote the book I wanted to read."
She couldn't find novels about young African American girls and their experience, so she wrote them herself. I'm not sure how many writers, including myself, have been inspired by those words, but I wager it's a great many.
When I joined my co-host, Anthony Fasano, in creating The Italian American Podcast (IAP), we were doing something similar—Creating a show we wanted to hear. There weren't outlets discussing our Italian American heritage, our history, our struggles, our cultural particularities, how they shape us, what's happened to them through assimilation, and so on. So we started a show that brought on high-profile Italian Americans, and we explored these things ourselves.
Now, I'm starting a new podcast (going solo on this one! Just me as host!), titled "Bella Figura—The Tradition of Living Beautifully." It's yet another show I want to hear.
Anthony and I often did IAP solo episodes, following our particular interests. The shows I did alone, from how to honor your ancestors to explorations of blood memory, were always very popular. I learned that, in our fast-paced, don't look back, modern world, people are searching for the things that root them in a history; the history of their own blood, of traditions and values that resonate, because they have been part of their lineage for centuries. When I asked our listeners to email me if they'd be interested in a show on these topics, the response was overwhelming, and I received many heartfelt, encouraging letters. I decided to explore these topics for a wider audience, not just Italian Americans.
So what is bella figura?
When I was a kid, and we travelled to Italy to visit family, my mother would be well-appointed for the flight—makeup on, sharp outfit, gold earrings, gold bracelets. She wasn't trying to impress people. She possessed too much confidence for that. But she was telling the world that she respected herself, and as such,in turn, she demanded the world's respect.
When she was a poor girl in Southern Italy, my grandmother, before leaving at dawn to hike the mountains and collect firewood in a meager attempt to make money, would lift my sleeping mother off their shared bed, which was in essence two sheets sewn together and filled with corn husks, and lay her on a blanket on the floor in order to fluff and make the bed before she left.
I remember myself as a young girl, barreling down the stairs to rush out to choir practice, and my older sister, Anna, taking one look at me, dressed, sadly, in a way I see so many young people dress today at Mass, in shorts and a t-shirt, and she halted me in mid-step.
"Where are you going, dressed like that?"
"I have to get to church for practice."
"Not like that you're not. Get back upstairs and dress yourself right," she demanded.
Of course, I listened.
That is BELLA FIGURA: Taking care to show God, and the world, that you respect yourself and the life He bore you into.
Our homes, our cars, our workspaces, our relationships—all are expressions of ourselves. When my home is cluttered, I feel the clutter in my mind. When I clean up the clutter, I feel the peace in my mind.
"Bella FIgura—The Tradition of Living Beautifully" takes this idea and draws it further down, past appearance (but not excluding it) into ways we can beautify every crevice of our lives by incorporating our ancestral traditions, understanding our family stories, and practicing our cultural spiritual traditions.
With those tools, we leverage our heritage to make art of our days. Much in the same vein that painter Frida Kahlo, for instance, took her Mexican heritage and used it to beautify her body, her work, her home, and her life as a whole.
Thus far I've interviewed or am scheduled to interview healers, writers, therapists, and designers, all from varying ethnic backgrounds. The show is divided into three major topics: The Majesty, which refers to the grandness that is your lineage, your ancestors, and your family stories; The Elemental, which refers to the values your culture honors above all others; and The Holy, which refers to the spiritual style and religious traditions of your heritage.
This is the show I've wanted to hear for some time now. I hope you feel the same way and join the exploration. You can subscribe to the mailing list at bellafigurapodcast.com to learn when episodes are live.
Dolores Alfieri Taranto