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This Is Not Who We Are

Sophie Buchaillard
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 13, 2022
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Shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2023


1994, Iris and Victoria are pen friends. Iris writes about her life with her family in Paris. Victoria is in a refugee camp in Goma having fled the genocide in Rwanda in which thousands are being killed. One day Victoria’s letters stop, and Iris is told she has been moved.

Twenty years later Iris, a new mother, is working as a journalist in London. As she prepares to return to work, her thoughts turn to Victoria and what might have happened to her. She pitches a story to her editor which sets her on a journey to find her pen friend. But as she follows the story, things emerge that make her question her own past. Was her father, a French government official, somehow involved in the genocide? Are her childhood memories more fiction than fact? Why is she looking for Victoria, really?

For Victoria, the last twenty years have been ones of migration, to Goma, then to Paris and finally to London. There she starts a new life with her youngest brother Paul, and leaves the past behind. Or so she thinks until she is suddenly confronted with the decision to reconnect with her genocide-supporting middle brother Benjamin.

How have the lives of these two women, who shared a moment in time, changed in the past twenty years? As the pressure of long-kept family secrets builds, will they ever find each other? 


‘Sophie Buchaillard’s novel is a stark and terrifying reminder that only the most fragile screen separates the familiar from the abyss, the comforts of home from the most obscene and extreme violence. It is an elegant and sombre reflection on what it means to retain one’s humanity in the face of a brutal and dehumanising cataclysm.' – Richard Gwyn


Author Q&A with Sophie Buchaillard:



Review by Aline Moura, The Cardiff Review

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Sophie Buchaillard’s This is Not Who We Are is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that delves into the intertwined lives of two women, Iris and Victoria, who became pen friends in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. After twenty years of lost communication, Iris, a journalist and recent mother, revisits her past letter exchanges with Victoria and pitches the idea of pursuing Victoria’s story to her editor. As for Victoria, her life changed completely when she fled Rwanda and ended up in a refugee camp in Goma. The book explores a range of complex and weighty topics: identity, otherness, and the power of language to shape our understanding of the world.

The epigraph of This is Not Who We Are sets the tone for Sophie Buchaillard’s exploration of the Rwandan genocide’s impact. The passage, by Toni Morrison from Mouth Full of Blood, “From what I gather from those who have studied the history of genocide—its definition and application—there seems to be a pattern”, emphasizes the common thread that emerges in the history of genocide, and how it is characterized by the imposition of a view of “otherness”; as does the definition of genocide provided in the epigraph—“A genocide is the systematic killing of a large group of people based on someone else’s criteria of otherness”. Throughout This is Not Who We Are, Buchaillard explores the urge to resist being imposed on a view that is not one’s own, often through dominant narratives. 

One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is the way it highlights the power of language to shape our understanding of the world and how it can be used as a tool of violence and oppression as well as a tool of hope and understanding. Buchaillard weaves together the sometimes contradictory narratives of the conflict by making use of Victoria’s and Iris’ letters, as well as the various accounts of the genocide that Iris uncovers during her research. To this extent, the title “This Is Not Who We Are” carries significant weight throughout the novel. It refers to the official narratives and propaganda that fueled hatred and violence before and during the Rwandan genocide and how those narratives created a false sense of identity for many people. The title suggests that the hatred and violence that occurred during the genocide are not representative of the true nature of the people involved but rather are shaped and manipulated by language. Also, by exploring the experiences of Iris and Victoria, Buchaillard illustrates how the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are can have a profound impact on our actions and understanding of the world. The title reminds us to challenge and question the sanctioned narratives that shape our sense of identity and history. Instead, we must seek to listen to and learn from those who have been silenced or marginalized.

Buchaillard’s writing is not only sensitive to the difficult subject matter but also captures the complexities of the human experience. As she explains in an interview with The Cardiff Review, “To me, writing is a way to make sense of the world. I write to answer a question. I watch the story unravel in my mind, imagine my characters, get sucked into their world. I feel like a detective trying to unpick a mystery.” This level of dedication is evident in the novel’s intricate character development. Buchaillard’s characters are nuanced and complex, allowing readers to fully immerse themselves in their experiences and emotions. Iris is a flawed but sympathetic character, struggling with her own sense of guilt and responsibility for the past. Victoria, on the other hand, is a survivor, fiercely determined to make a better life for herself and her remaining family.

Throughout the book, Iris grapples with the idea of appropriating Victoria’s story. Iris says, “There was much discussion about authors appropriating the experience of others, as if to do so was to perpetrate yet another crime against the victims”. In the wake of this thought, Iris finds herself confronted with uncomfortable questions regarding Europe’s responsibility for the violence and how to handle the pain of the past. Through the lens of Iris and Victoria’s experiences, Buchaillard forces readers to confront uncomfortable truths about how we talk about and interact with those who are different from us.

In the essay “Presence Achieved by Language (With Special Attention Given to the Presence of the Past),” the literary critic Hans U. Gumbrecht asks whether the “presence” of things, including things of the past, can be rendered in language, including the language of historians. Buchaillard’s novel is a testament to the power of language to capture the complexities of the past and translate them into a form that can be understood and felt by readers today.

There is no doubt that This is Not Who We Are will resonate with anyone who is interested in exploring topics such as identity, otherness, and the power of language, as well as those simply seeking a poignant and thought-provoking novel. Through her characters’ experiences, she highlights the complexities of language and the importance of confronting uncomfortable truths about our society. “Silence accommodates hate”, a character states. And through this book, Buchaillard reminds us that silence is not an option.

Review by Niall Griffiths, Nation Cymru

Sunday, November 20, 2022

On the radio, Suella Braverman was rancidly blethering about sending desperate people seeking sanctuary to Rwanda.

I read one more chapter of Dan Gretton’s I You We Them, his huge study of the ‘desk-killer’ (those bureaucrats who, with the stroke of a pen, condemn others to suffering), then I put it to one side and picked up This Is Not Who We Are.

Synchronicity is unsettling, at times. But here we are.

Iris and Victoria are penpals. Iris lives in Paris, Victoria in Rwanda. Iris’s father works for the French Foreign Office, specialising in the Francophone areas of Africa.

The correspondence ceases when, to the Rwandans, the panga takes on more importance than the pen; when the words inyenzi and interahamwe start to be heard.

When men of God begin to extol hate and murder. In the epistolary-flavoured opening section of the novel we see, through Victoria’s beautifully depicted voice of wonder and fear, how tribal violence happens: gradually, then suddenly. Terrifyingly, sickeningly suddenly.

Victoria’s brother, Benjamin, takes up a machete and becomes one of the killers; a butcher of other children, indeed, and in whose eyes his sister sees, only and chillingly, ‘a certainty older than the both of us’.


This is a powerfully empathetic and sensitive book, which reserves its real rage for the ideological fanatics who deliberately mutate anger at oppression into a specious salvationist enterprise, hate-fuelled, directed at other victims of that same oppression.

Fraternity in suffering is splintered into adversarial tribalism – Victoria’s younger brother, Paul, severs Benjamin’s hand in a refugee camp, after which he and Victoria flee to find their father, Data, from whom they are again taken, this time to the safety of France, by Agnes, in the figure of whom is embodied the possibility of human care and kindness which Buchaillard insists we must never forget.


We return to Iris, re-reading her penpal correspondence: ‘I didn’t know about the misguided deterministic colonial meddling, or about its appropriation by a minority, thirsty for power. All I knew was a name: Victoria’.

Never lose sight of the suffering of the individual (and how many tormented individuals are there, following a massacre in which nearly a million were hacked to death?).

Iris’s father is now dead, perhaps of heartbreak induced by guilt: ‘a sort of trauma brought on by violence he could not stop’, and in which, in fact, from the security of his government office, he was partly complicit. Iris is now in London, and a mother.

A decade has passed since her last contact with Victoria but, in her capacity as journalist, she is coaxed into investigating what might have happened to her penpal. So she returns to Paris, and meets Agnes.

Diffuse racism

Imperialist divide-and-rule; the West’s indifference; the diffuse racism that relegates African affairs to the ineffable and unknowable; all of this is here. Victoria’s PTSD is encapsulated in the recurring sound-memory of a skull being crushed, which in itself becomes an awful prolepsis.

The one-armed Benjamin tracks his sister down, alienates Paul and becomes, however inadvertently, instrumental in Victoria’s demise; so violence forever pollutes the individual who once embraced it and taints his actions, sullying his life, even after renunciation and rehabilitation.

Once indulged in, violence never leaves its quondam perpetrator; an unshakeable demon, it will cement itself in the psychic cracks which initially beckoned it in (the notion of demonic possession is a leitmotif).


This is a fine novel. The Author’s Note clarifies the autobiographical elements of it, and does not shy from apportioning blame (nor should it).

There is cautious hope, alongside a demand to acknowledge that the world’s wounds caused by such events as the Rwandan slaughter will need a lot of work to heal.

‘Language failed Rwanda’, we are told; yes, it did, but it can also be used to mend. The panga was designed as an agricultural implement; it was initially used to grow food.

Review in Wales Arts Review, Mark Blayney

Monday, October 17, 2022

“This is a hard novel to review. Sophie Buchaillard shows, subtly but persuasively, that a politically manufactured difference can have appalling, long-term and unresolved consequences. That is so resonant to our times, so relevant to the issues that we live with daily, that we are instantly sympathetic to Buchaillard’s starting point and aims... There’s much fine, restrained writing. ‘Parents see my skin, and they assume I am here to clean their children’s school.’ Or, on boarding a plane, ‘ “This way,’ he directs, as if to be swallowed by a giant metal snake was the most natural thing in the world.’... A novel to be recommended. ” – Mark Blayney


Review in Wales Arts Review

Thursday, September 1, 2022

This is a hard novel to review. Sophie Buchaillard shows, subtly but persuasively, that a politically manufactured difference can have appalling, long-term and unresolved consequences. That is so resonant to our times, so relevant to the issues that we live with daily, that we are instantly sympathetic to Buchaillard’s starting point and aims... There’s much fine, restrained writing. ‘Parents see my skin, and they assume I am here to clean their children’s school.’ Or, on boarding a plane, ‘ “This way,’ he directs, as if to be swallowed by a giant metal snake was the most natural thing in the world.’... A novel to be recommended. ” – Mark Blaney


Review by Katherine Stansfield

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

A multi-layered and very moving novel about the Rwandan genocide and the culpability of the French government. The central idea of pen friends whose letter-writing is disrupted by war feels original and offers a fruitful way into this complex subject matter. An excellent debut and I can't wait to see what Sophie Buchaillard writes next.

Review by Rachel Rees, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Timely questions regarding colonialism and the devastating way its impacts echo down the ages are sensitively explored in Sophie Buchaillard’s new novel, This Is Not Who We Are. The author takes her own childhood memories of exchanging pen pal letters with Victoria, a young Rwandan girl caught up in the country’s genocide, as the starting point for her work. 

While in reality Victoria’s fate remains unknown, within the pages of her book Buchaillard imagines what may have become of her and her family. Eschewing easy answers and neat conclusions in favour of a searing depiction of the brutal legacy that childhood trauma leaves upon a life, the novel is at its most engaging when delving deep into the psyche of Victoria’s two brothers – one of whom is mentally scarred by the systematic killings, while the other helped to carry them out. 

[T]he story [...] certainly succeeds in shedding fresh light on an atrocity that is far too little known in the West. That it does so through the eyes of a real girl who fell through the gaps of history affords it a poignancy that stays with you long after you've turned This Is Not Who We Are's last page.


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