Author Olivia A. Cole Opens Up About Neurodivergence, Gender, and Ariel Crashes a Train

One of the things we love most about the YA community is the way so many authors share honest stories about difficult topics. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Olivia A. Cole, author of Dear Medusa and Ariel Crashes a Train, shared this powerful personal story with us about neurodivergence, gender identity, and how Ariel Crashes a Train came to be.

Gender Is a Trap

by Olivia A. Cole

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought about my brain and my body as two separate creatures. There are reasons for this, neurodivergence and trauma among them. Then comes the variable of gender: as a person who knew they were nonbinary from practically toddlerhood—though lacking the language to describe myself as such—my body often felt inconvenient. I longed to be just a brain floating through space.

Ariel Crashes a Train as a place for unlearning

As I explored Ariel’s story for this book, I first approached it with much the same thought: this was a book about OCD. A brain, and nothing more. But as I wrote and got to know Ariel Burns, a slow recognition began to creep over me. Ariel did not share my desire to be a floating brain: she was afraid of her brain. And unlike me, she had a comfort within her body that was only challenged by others’ perceptions of her as “too big” or “unfeminine.”

Memories unlocked

Many authors talk about feelings of catharsis that can arise when writing about painful subjects—I’ve had that feeling as well. But never have I considered a book as “therapy” when writing it until now. In learning about Ariel, I got much closer to memories of my childhood than I ever have. I may not have had comfort with my body as teenager and an adult, but I wasn’t always this way! I remembered the feeling of joy when people would ask me, Are you a girl or a boy? And I remembered the freedom of refusing to answer, refusing to pick. That joy was stripped from me as I got older, faced with the violence of gender “rules” and the people (usually men, but not always) who would eagerly enforce them. I was in third grade the first time a boy threatened to beat me up for not telling him my gender. I slowly learned to hide in a shoddy costume of girlhood.

Never either/or

Gradually the certainty I felt as a young child was replaced with confusion and self-loathing. I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be at home in my body. Sexual abuse in middle school contributed to these feelings, and the gap between body and brain widened more and more. In writing Dear Medusa, I began to make connections. But it wasn’t until writing Ariel Crashes a Train that more came into focus: this society demands conformity—funny in a country that prides itself on individualism, isn’t it?—and that demand had beaten me into unknowing myself. It wasn’t that I had a problem with my body, it was that the connection I had to it had been severed. I slowly began to realize that I didn’t actually want to be just a floating brain! My brain—even the scary parts of it—is part of my body. A wedge had been driven in when I was told by our society that who I thought myself to be was wrong because a doctor looked at my body and said girl. And I’d been questioning this beautiful vessel ever since.

Gender is a trap

It took getting to know Ariel to have this realization: I don’t have a problem with my body. As a child I loved how it carried me where I wanted to go. The problem was given to me, forced on me at a young age. Ariel says at one point: “I don’t want to be smaller. I just want you to not want me to be smaller.” Gender was a trap I was shoved into. And like Ariel, I’m slowly getting free.

Read Olivia A. Cole’s Books

Ariel Crashes a Train

Ariel Crashes a Train

“A gorgeously kind, wonderfully gentle, and unfailingly compassionate depiction of OCD . . . bursting with light.”
— Ashley Woodfolk, critically acclaimed author of NOTHING BURNS AS BRIGHT AS YOU

Exploring the harsh reality of OCD and violent intrusive thoughts in stunning, lyrical writing, this novel-in-verse conjures a haunting yet hopeful portrait of a girl on the edge. From the author of Dear Medusa, which New York Times bestselling author Samira Ahmed called “a fierce and brightly burning feminist roar.”

Ariel is afraid of her own mind. She already feels like she is too big, too queer, too rough to live up to her parents’ exacting expectations, or to fit into what the world expects of a “good girl.” And as violent fantasies she can’t control take over every aspect of her life, she is convinced something much deeper is wrong with her. Ever since her older sister escaped to college, Ariel isn’t sure if her careful rituals and practiced distance will be enough to keep those around her safe anymore.

Then a summer job at a carnival brings new friends into Ariel’s fractured world , and she finds herself questioning her desire to keep everyone out—of her head and her heart. But if they knew what she was really thinking, they would run in the other direction—right? Instead, with help and support, Ariel discovers a future where she can be at home in her mind and body, and for the first time learns there’s a name for what she struggles with—Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—and that she’s not broken, and not alone.

Dear Medusa

Dear Medusa

This searing and intimate novel in verse follows a sixteen-year-old girl coping with sexual abuse as she grapples with how to reclaim her story, her anger, and her body in a world that seems determined to punish her for the sin of surviving.

“This is more than a story about sexual violence—this book is about race, sexuality, love, and how anger can be a catalyst for healing.”
—Gabrielle Union, bestselling author, actress, and producer

Sixteen-year-old Alicia Rivers has a reputation that precedes her. But there’s more to her story than the whispers that follow her throughout the hallways at school—whispers that splinter into a million different insults that really mean: a girl who has had sex. But what her classmates don’t know is that Alicia was sexually abused by a popular teacher, and that trauma has rewritten every cell in her body into someone she doesn’t recognize. To the world around her, she’s been cast, like the mythical Medusa, as not the victim but the monster of her own story: the slut who asked for it.

Alicia was abandoned by her best friend, quit the track team, and now spends her days in detention feeling isolated and invisible. When mysterious letters left in her locker hint at another victim, Alicia struggles to keep up the walls she’s built around her trauma. At the same time, her growing attraction to a new girl in school makes her question what those walls are really keeping out.

“[This] fierce and brightly burning feminist roar…paints a devastating and haunting portrait of a vulnerable young woman discovering the power of her voice, her courage, and her rage.” —Samira Ahmed, New York Times bestselling author of Internment and Hollow Fires

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