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Passing Literacies: Soviet Immigrant Elders and Intergenerational Language Practice

Using a qualitative approach through interview data and a grounded theory methodology, this dissertation focuses on the literacy practices of immigrant families from various former Soviet Republics, primarily Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants in the Boston area. The immigrant literacy users in my study developed reading and writing strategies within spaces of contingency, flux, and danger in order to survive. By interviewing these immigrants who are now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, the study asks first, how these elders pass on literacy and language practices to their family members, and second, what the members of that family gain through the passing of these practices. These narratives recount lifetimes of literacy experience during times of war and migration and are particularly valuable as the field of literacy studies looks toward methodologies that triangulate how people use and pass literacies across countries and generations. The analysis of this data shows that elders pass to their children and grandchildren what is termed in this project as “safeguard literacies.” That is, elders’ literacy and language practices were developed in times of extreme duress, and the narratives show how safeguard literacies are passed onto children and grandchildren in order to build intergenerational connective networks, to provide access to cultural and familial “storehouses,” and to enable their progeny’s survival by showing them how to read circumspectly not just texts but a world that is always changing. By centering multilingual immigrant elders’ narratives about literacy use during times of war and migration, this study pushes against approaches that delimit language use to nation state affiliation and assimilation; rather, the immigrant elders in this study convey that their literacies, rather than being a result of deficit or lack, develop in spite of, and because of, precarity and offer powerful and flexible strategies that last across time and space.