Cortney Radocaj — Intersectionality, Publishing and Diverse Literature

 “As a member and advocate of both the queer and neurodiverse communities,” writes Cortney Radocaj, a literary agent with the Belcastro Agency, “I adore seeing works that celebrate and normalize these experiences, especially in YA” (young adult) literature. When we reached out to her, Radocaj shares the complexities of living with multiple invisible disabilities, navigating the rapidly evolving world of writing and publishing, and striving for more and better representation for diverse voices and marginalized communities.

Cortney Radocaj holding two books
Cortney Radocaj holding “City of Shattered Light” and “A Furry Faux Paw”

Itto Outini: What first sparked your interest in literature? Which books were formative for you, and why?

Cortney Radocaj: I honestly don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in books. My mom’s an avid reader, and my dad would always read to me at bedtime. Books have always been part of my world. Two particularly formative ones were The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, and The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey. They both deal with intense emotion, particularly negative emotion, in tangible and nuanced ways. The characters aren’t all happy all the time, and while neither is a tragedy, the negatives aren’t easily fixed or glossed over. Those books introduced me to how literature can help young readers understand trauma and explore the full range of human emotion.

I have ADHD, and a big part of that is emotional dysregulation. I experience a lot of big, powerful emotions—and not always at opportune times! I’m lucky to have extremely supportive parents. My mom always understands and validates my feelings, and my dad’s a big goofball and always there when I need a hug or a laugh. That said, I grew up in a very small, conservative town in Eastern Washington where there were zero mental health resources. I mean, we were strategically located near a major interstate, so we had some things, but not the kinds of support I could’ve used. Books helped to fill in that gap for me.

Itto: How did you become a literary agent?  

Cortney: I always wanted to work in the publishing industry, but before going to college, I used to think I’d be an editor. I did a couple internships at publishing houses and enjoyed the work, but living in New York was not conducive to my emotional health and well-being, and that’s where most of the publishing houses are. After graduating, I started researching other jobs in the industry and came across internships for literary agencies. I started as an intern in June of 2017 and signed my first client early in 2019. I moved to the Belcastro Agency in September of 2019 and made my first sale the following year!

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Itto: What do you most enjoy about being a literary agent? What do you find most challenging?

Cortney: Agenting is all about championing authors. Editors are fabulous and fight for their authors whenever they can, but at the end of the day, they work for the publishing house, so they’re always going to be beholden to what their house wants. An agent’s only responsibility is to their author. I love standing up for my authors and helping them get their books into the right hands.

That said, publishing isn’t a field for the faint-hearted. Trying to establish a career is difficult enough even if you have all the privilege in the world, let alone when you’re dealing with disabilities and other marginalizations. This industry isn’t set up to accommodate neurodivergent and disabled people—though there’s been some evolution on that front since the pandemic began. Before COVID, most literary events were in-person, which is hard for people who struggle to leave their homes, either because of neurodivergence and social anxiety, or because of physical disabilities, or for any other reason. This specific issue isn’t quite as prevalent now with everything being online, but the current arrangement absolutely isn’t perfect, either. Some types of accommodations are becoming normalized—captions on videos, ASL interpreters for panels and presentations, alt text for images, etc.—and in general, there seems to be more willingness to listen and learn. But still, accommodations aren’t consistently available to everyone, and a lot of us are worried that everything might shift back to in-person at some point, with zero attempt to retain the limited progress that’s been made in terms of accessibility.

For me, personally, I always used to force myself to do what other agents do when they’re working long-distance and make connections on the phone, but between social anxiety and not processing or retaining auditory information well, that was absolute hell for me! I used to torture myself because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do, but recently, I’ve reevaluated my approach and started asking for wish lists by email. That sometimes surprises editors, but usually they go along with it. I still sometimes feel like I’m “not doing it right,” but I’m getting the job done and doing it in a way that doesn’t destroy me, and that’s something!

Itto: Do you meet many people in the publishing industry who identify as queer, neurodivergent, disabled, or as members of other marginalized groups? Generally speaking, is there a sense of community?

Cortney: Yes! A lot of us, especially those of us who specialize in children’s literature, got into the business because we knew that we were different from an early age and latched onto books because they reflected aspects of our lived experiences and ourselves. We would also tend to notice which aspects of ourselves weren’t reflected, which would motivate us to work toward changing that for others. I think the arts in general are a magnet for people who are queer, neurodivergent, or just different in some way. There’s a running joke that queer, neurodivergent kids run in packs, and publishing is no exception!

That said, we’re absolutely not the majority. There are enough of us that most of the time, I do feel a sense of community, and it’s very heartening to see agents whom I look up to talking openly about their ADHD, autism, physical disabilities, etc., while still being successful. But that doesn’t extend to everyone. Thankfully, I haven’t dealt with much overt bigotry in the industry, but it happens now and then, and it’s gut-wrenching every time. Once, for example, an old mentor asked if the book I loved and wanted to sign “had to be gay”—if it could change. On another occasion, a book I had on submission was getting a lot of “this is so strong and amazing, but I’m not in love” responses, and I was so frustrated and didn’t understand what was wrong, and then someone pointed out that the protagonist was autistic-coded, and that might be the issue.

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In short, we have a strong foundation in the industry, but at the same time, we still have a long way to go.

Itto: There’s a lot of debate right now about the language used to describe people who are different or marginalized, and the language we use to refer to ourselves. How do you feel about the terms “disabled” and “disability”?

Cortney Radocaj standing in front of bookcase

Cortney: This is something I’ve grappled with for a long time, especially since getting diagnosed with POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome) and ADHD. I recognize that both are disabilities, and if anyone else identified as disabled because of these conditions, with exactly the symptoms I experience, I’d never question it. But for myself? Oh, boy! I’ve spent so much of my life making myself as small as possible and trying to avoid inconveniencing people, and I spent almost a decade fighting with doctors and psychiatrists for the most basic acknowledgement and recognition, and those experiences have really made me doubt myself. I can’t help but worry that if I start identifying as disabled, people are going to look at me and decide that I’m not disabled enough. Like, what if I don’t deserve to say that I’m disabled? What if my doing so takes away legitimacy from people with disabilities that are more severe than mine, or more visible, or just somehow…more?

I guess I’m still working through my own internalized anxieties and ableism to get to the point where I’m comfortable saying I have disabilities. Because I do. At the end of the day, I do.

Itto: How do your identities (and their intersection) influence your personal, social, and professional lives, and your sense of yourself in the world? 

Cortney: This is a big question! I’ll start from the beginning: I’ve struggled with social anxiety and clinical depression since middle school. In elementary school, I’d been a pretty bubbly, outgoing kid, but in middle school, my social anxiety got really bad. I became a perfectionist. I wasn’t really being challenged academically, but I felt like I had to do everything perfectly all the time, and if I didn’t, I was afraid I’d disappoint my teachers, that my peers would lose respect for me, that everyone would realize I wasn’t as smart as I appeared to be, and everything would fall apart.

This continued through high school, although taking AP classes did take the edge off a little by challenging me and basically serving as a distraction. Sports also helped with my anxiety, if only temporarily.

But then I got to college, and dear god, was it a slap in the face! I wanted to challenge myself, so I moved 2,500 miles away from my family and friends, from a town of less than 20,000 people to Manhattan, by myself! I don’t regret it because it forced me to grow in countless ways, but it wasn’t fun at all. I was finally being challenged academically the way I’d always wanted, and it was hard, and I wasn’t perfect—I didn’t get all As—and my confidence and self-worth crumbled.

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Depression took root and never left. I lost a lot of my coping mechanisms and failed to establish new ones. My parents did their best, but they’d never been taught healthy coping mechanisms either and could only pass on what they knew. Anxiety itself began to function as a coping mechanism to help me deal with the ADHD, but of course that just made the anxiety worse. I was terrified of not getting everything done on time, perfectly. Everyone around me seemed to be doing fine, having fun, going to parties, making friends, and there I was having panic attacks, getting overwhelmed during lectures, and hiding in my room. I realize now that I was drowning in social anxiety and struggling with auditory processing, but at the time, all I could perceive was failure.

I did a lot of things to stay on top of coursework that I thought were normal, but that absolutely weren’t. I’d write out exactly what I needed to do for homework every single day for an entire semester and then feel like I’d fallen behind if I deviated even a little. Or I’d read every single word of the assigned reading because if I didn’t, the teacher would know,and get mad, and I’d fail.

My family never once told me that my worth was attached to my grades or achievements, but somehow they still became completely tied together. Looking back, I can see it for what it was—ADHD, hyper-focusing on school, rejection sensitivity dysphoria, and a whole hell of a lot of emotional dysregulation—but at the time, it was just frustrating, confusing, demoralizing. It filled my life with constant dissonance and led to a lot of insecurity about who I was as a person.

I graduated with a 3.8 GPA, and I still felt like I’d failed.

On top of that, my physical health was declining. I’d played soccer in high school and tried to stay active during college, but no matter what I did or didn’t do, I always ended up exhausted. Near the end of undergrad, a sleep doctor told me—before asking any questions about my lifestyle—that I just needed to “stop partying and staying out so late, and I’d be fine.” I didn’t drink. I didn’t go out. I didn’t have friends togo out with! I would pass out every night by 9:30 because I literally couldn’t stay awake longer. It kept getting worse and worse, but everyone dismissed me because I was young.

No one—except for those closest to me, and for them, I’m eternally grateful—listened when I described my physical symptoms. Deep down, I knew something was wrong with my body, but after the blood work came back normal and I went on antidepressants, everyone started telling me that I just had to exercise. When I told the doctors how hard that was and how awful I felt whenever I worked out, they would come back with, “You just have to do it.” It didn’t matter that I went from being a varsity athlete to barely being able to walk 10 minutes without collapsing. I wasn’t doing enough.  

Eventually, I got a diagnosis: postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). It took a while, though, because I don’t have a lot of support needs, or at least my support needs aren’t as visible. I’m considered reliable and never miss deadlines, but it’s not because I don’t lose track of time or forget things; it’s because of the massive amount of anxiety I have whenever I think about inconveniencing anyone. People see that I exceled at school, that I’ve managed to hold down jobs, that I have a stable relationship, and they conclude that I must be fine because they can’t see the absolutely bonkers coping mechanisms I use to do those things!

Honestly, though, I’ve come a long way. I’m getting better at listening to my own needs, working when I can and not trying to force it when my mind and body are screaming at me not to. I’ve learned that I need to do agenting stuff in the mornings because that’s when I’m the most productive. I still struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for “not doing enough,” but allowing myself more flexibility and not trying to maintain a rigid schedule has helped me a lot in the long run.

Itto: As an agent, what kinds of stories do you prefer to represent, and why?

Cortney: I represent young adult and adult fiction across a few genres: fantasy, science fiction, horror, contemporary and novels-in-verse. At some point, I also hope to dip my toes into graphic novels! I absolutely adore representing books for teens, especially when the characters belong to marginalized groups, because YA novels meant so much to me when I was young. Stories that dealt with big, intense emotions like the ones that I was feeling helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. A good story is one thing, but I can’t even begin to explain how much it meant to me as a teen—and even now, as an adult—to feel seen.

It’s also important that marginalized characters are represented in complex, nuanced ways. It’s easy for writing to manifest unconscious biases, which is why a lot of marginalized characters get stereotyped into flat, single-note roles, but it’s just as problematic when they’re just a little too perfect. I think a lot of authors are afraid of writing truly complex minority characters because complexity means they’ll have some negative attributes—but that’s okay! Everyone has both positive and negative traits, and eliminating negative traits can be just as dehumanizing as eliminating positive ones.

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Itto: What advice do you have for authors when they’re writing marginalized characters?

Cortney: The main thing is to research what’s been problematic in the past. What tropes or stereotypes have been harmful to the group you’re representing, and why? Listen to people who belong to that group and defer to them. It doesn’t matter if a neurotypical person thinks portraying an autistic character as a savant isn’t harmful to the autistic community if autistic people are saying otherwise. It doesn’t matter if an able-bodied person thinks using the term “wheelchair-bound” is fine when wheelchair users disagree. Listen to what people from those groups are saying. No identity is a monolith, and not everyone who shares an identity is going to agree about everything, so you might encounter different opinions, but the most important thing is to listen to what people have to say, familiarize yourself with a wide range of perspectives, and avoid the tropes that everyone agrees are problematic, or were harmful in the past.

Itto: What trends do you observe in the publishing world regarding representations of people from marginalized communities?  

Cortney: There’s a big push toward marginalized protagonists being written by authors who share that same identity—which is a good thing on the surface, but can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Historically, marginalized authors have been ignored and shoved aside while their stories have been told by more “palatable,” “acceptable” authors. Essentially, money has been made off those stories, and none of it has gone back into the communities being represented. There’s a viral comic by Megan Nicole Dong that illustrates this:

Toad and cat speaking Toad: There are so many stories about cats and so few tales of toads. I would love to share more toad stories with the world. Cat: My god…you are right. Cat: There should be more stories about your kind.

Cat: I…will tell these stories about your kind…

Toad looks concerned/upset as cat performs a story with a toad hat on)

Thankfully, that’s starting to change! On the other hand, there are issues with insisting that authors share all their protagonists’ identities, too. There’s a lot of nuance to how different identities impact a person’s life, and it’s nearly impossible for someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves to understand that nuance, and exponentially more so when different identities start intersecting, so it sort of makes sense as a standard. But enforcing that norm can go dreadfully wrong.

For example, in 2015, Corinne Duyvis started a hashtag, #ownvoices, which was meant to let readers see which books were written by authors who shared their protagonists’ identities and avoid potentially harmful representations. It was never intended as a way for publishing professionals to determine an author’s “authenticity,” but the hashtag exploded, and that’s exactly what it became. It’s been weaponized and used to gate-keep and police who’s “allowed” to tell certain stories. That’s really problematic because authors can’t always be public about their identities. There have already been many, many instances of authors getting outed as queer or disabled in really unpleasant, sometimes dangerous ways just so they can “prove” their own identities and stop the harassment they’re facing from their colleagues and peers.

Personally, my biggest goal is to support and champion marginalized authors, but it’s also important for diversity of all kinds to be present in all books, no matter how the author identifies. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable sharing parts of their identity. Sometimes they don’t even realize they belong to certain groups. Many authors work through their feelings on sexuality and gender through their writing, and it’s important to encourage that process instead of shutting it down.

Itto: What about the broader public discourse? How are representations of marginalized communities changing across media, from film to news to social media to television?

Cortney: There’s been a lot of progress recently in terms of popular representation. For a long time, whenever people who were queer or neurodivergent appeared in pop culture narratives, they were cast in negative roles: the butt of the joke, the bumbling sidekick, the villain. If villains weren’t subtly queer-coded, they were outright labeled as mentally ill—usually bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, or dissociative identity disorder, though it’s happened with many other neurodivergent identities as well. Research has shown time and time again that the vast majority of neurodivergent people are not violent—that we’re more often the victims of violence—but we’re coded as the “other,” and that makes us easier to vilify.

Mainstream representations are definitely becoming less overtly bigoted, but marginalized characters are still often typecast in peripheral, one-dimensional roles. Queer characters are shunted off as “the gay best friend”; characters with anxiety disorders are cast as unstable, incapable of doing anything; disabled characters are used as inspiration porn and only exist in scenes revolving around their disability. More often than not, the marginalized characters are still the butt of the joke. The protagonist realizes their date is trans and runs away, and isn’t that hilariously uncomfortable? The autistic character is overly literal about a joke, and isn’t that funny because they’re so simple?

A lot of people seem to think that because the discrimination’s not as blatant as it used to be, everything is fine, but the jabs have only gotten subtler. That said, though, even if it sometimes feels like things are only just starting to change and we have such a long way to go, the reality is that they’re starting to tangibly change now because of all the hard work that others have been doing for decades. I think about things like the Percy Jackson books, the new She-Ra adaption, all the work Rick Riordan is doing with his imprint focusing on publishing books by marginalized authors for marginalized kids, and how none of it could’ve existed when I was a kid, and it’s all going to keep having ripple effects for the next 10, 20, 30 years, and that makes me really happy and hopeful.

Itto: What lessons do you take from working in the publishing industry, and how do you apply them in other parts of your life?

Cortney: When I first started working as an agent, I did my best to maintain a consistent routine, but POTS and ADHD would always get in the way, which led to a whole lot of shame and self-loathing. I’m privileged to work from home, but I still have a tendency to be my own cruel, overbearing boss. That’s something I’m working to change!

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I’m gradually learning how to listen to my body and set my work aside when necessary. I used to set a lot of concrete goals and let my self-worth hinge on whether I achieved them, but the thing about publishing is that nothing’s ever really under your control. I might want to put a client on the bestseller list, or get a book turned into a movie, or make a certain number of deals per year, but those things almost always come down to luck and timing—which means they don’t make very good goals.

I’m learning to focus more on who I am and how I carry myself in the world. I strive to be compassionate and to offer a warm, safe haven for my authors and everyone else in my life, no matter how the weird vicissitudes of publishing conspire to drag me down. I still struggle with feelings of guilt and shame for “not doing enough,” but I’m getting better at reminding myself that it doesn’t matter what I put on my resume or in my portfolio: if I’m not being the person I want to be, I won’t be happy. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about: slowly, painstakingly, little by little becoming the person you want to be.

Cortney Radocaj

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