“It’s a Tricky Space to Be In”: An Interview with Jonny Sun

In Jonny Sun’s everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too, Jomny -- an alien sent to Earth -- discovers that earthlings are tired, lonely, and coming to terms with happiness, sadness, death and the many themes that are reflected in Jonny’s Twitter feed. The book, perhaps best described as an adult children’s book, weaves through different characters to tell a story that leaves you feeling both empty and hopeful, which is exactly the line that Jonny toes the existential crisis he struggles with online.

Outside of his Twitter fame (Time named him one of the 25 most influential people on the internet), Sun is currently pursuing a PhD in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Below is an interview with Sun about his new book, his Twitter timeline, the personal struggles he went through during the process of putting the project together, and more.

Alex Wong: Tell me how everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too came together as a book project.

Jonny Sun: I always saw Twitter not as an end product, but as an exercise to figure out my voice, to craft an ability to write jokes. I used to write sketch comedy, and Twitter was a cool way to continue to hone that and make things tighter. I always saw Twitter as this exercise, while I didn’t know what the end goal was, not that the book is an end goal, but it’s the fruit of that exercise.

I always wanted to do an illustrated project based on the things I was writing. Originally, I thought about doing a webcomic. But the more I thought about it, the more interested I was in doing a standalone book, that would have a narrative, that was inspired by all the illustrated books I used to read as a kid.

What were some of those inspirations?

Definitely Shel Silverstein, more his narrative books than his poetry. The Missing Piece was one; it’s about this pie-shaped character with a wedge missing and he’s just rolling around. It was very bittersweet and strange. Also Bill Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes. I used to read a lot of comics as a kid. Those kind of books, they’re a little bit introspective, melancholic, and sad. That was what I was tapping into.

I know putting a book together is not easy, but did you find it easier when you went back to your Twitter timeline and saw these threads and themes you were tapping into?

It was easy in the sense that some of the groundwork for the book had been four years in the making. A lot of that stuff I figured out before I figured out what it would look like in a book. I found the statements that worked as specific landmarks in the book. The question was how do I turn it into a puzzle and fill in the blanks and sew together a narrative through the pieces that I wanted in the book. I don’t know if it was easier.

The tone of the book, as it is with your Twitter feed, is as you say, introspective and melancholic. Where does that come from personally?

That’s always been the type of work I’ve been attracted to. It was work that I learned I enjoyed writing. Where does it come from? I’m not sure. I used to watch a lot of sketch comedy and the comedy that I used to like was always the stuff that had a darker edge, and had more of an emotional gut punch. There was always a lot more complicated emotions than just pure laughter and happiness. I was always interested in how laughter is a gateway to other emotions, and if you can make people laugh, you can get in and hit other emotional points, in the same way you can craft a joke that ends in another emotion. I like the idea of playing comedy against something else.

A large audience engages with what you say on your Twitter feed. How does it feel to see your voice as one that people really resonate with?

It’s wild. I still can’t wrap my head around it. It’s also weird because it was never something I planned on. I always saw Twitter as a writing exercise. I didn’t really intend for it to build this thing to get a million followers. It was something I wasn’t mentally prepared for. It’s cool and very rewarding for any writer, I think, to put something out there and have people respond to it. It’s a strange but cool relationship with people, and a lot of heartwarming things have happened. I’ve had a lot of people meet each other in the comments section of my tweets. It’s very humbling at the same time. I’m very conscious of the responsibility of having a platform.

What about the decision to make your real identity more accessible and to show your face?

When I found other comedic people on Twitter, I realized they all had anonymous account. There’s this fun thing, where if you’re a real comedian with a real face online, it’s a different effect than if you were this cartoon character. Because if you’re attached to a real identity it’s almost like you’re trying to get yourself somewhere, there’s a performative and promotional aspect to it. But if you were anonymous, it feels more pure.

I don’t know what caused it to switch, but at some point, I think a lot of other people started to make their real life identity more searchable and accessible to the public. It gets to a point where the anonymity becomes limiting, where at this point you don’t want to be just seen as this Twitter account, or just this personality and this character. There was a desire to be like, “Okay, this is me as a writer and not just the product.”

I also felt this urge to not be anonymous because I’ve never seen an Asian person working on comedy or doing the stuff that I wanted to do. I thought if I started out writing these jokes on the Internet with my face, my identity would preclude that material. It’s difficult to do that in certain spaces online. I’ve done comedy before, and I was aware how Asian-ness plays a role in comedy. A lot of times we’re the punchline, a lot of racial humor where we’re still just laughing at Asians.

You’ve mentioned that putting this book together helped you figure out some things personally too.

It was huge. When I started thinking about the book, I was in the most insecure point in my life, it was definitely the most difficult point in my life. I started a doctorate program, and I was in a lab doing work that was not interesting to me. I felt very intimidated and had imposter syndrome. I didn’t know what I was doing there. I felt like I had no control of what I was doing.

Whenever I get in situations like that, I turn to creative work. It’s something you can control and I know what I’m doing. The book originally started as this small piece of creative therapy, and that’s when I really grappled with the idea of mental health and realized that maybe what I’m going through here isn’t what everyone is going through. I started realizing I had anxiety and depression, and started seeing a therapist.

The actual experience of going to therapy played into the book’s narrative. I see the alien character as a listener, someone who is more quiet. I think my relationship with my therapist informed that a lot. I was just thinking a lot about how I felt better after going to therapy, and what exactly that meant for me. This book became this metaphor for therapy but also another way for me to work out ideas and thoughts, and to put things to images.

So now that you’ve finished the book, do you feel like you’re on the other side of the therapeutic experiences?

I still haven’t figured out what it feels like. It feels so fresh. It’s definitely nice, because doing a book is such an isolated experience, and it might have been a strange choice because a lot of my depression and anxiety comes from self-isolation, so doing more of that might not have been good for me.

I was doing it alone. I felt so alone doing it. Now that it’s out and people are responding to it, it’s kind of cool. I didn’t know if that would ever happen. It’s very rewarding for me that people are seeing it and finding connections to it.

My favorite thing about the book is that you offer all these perspectives about happiness, sadness, and death. It felt oddly calming to read a lot of your takes on those issues. You talk about how it was creative therapy for you, do you feel like at the same time this book can help people dealing with the same issues when it comes to anxiety, depression and isolation?

I don’t think it’s aimed towards any audience in that way. I’m also wary of claiming any therapeutic benefit because I’m not a licensed therapist. I think a lot of creatives deal in that space, and it’s a tricky space to be in. For me, it helped me put words to things I was going through. To the extent that it becomes that for other people to describe what they’re going through, this is what I hope for. I don’t think it has to be a particular audience or a particular group of people. Part of why I read and why I consume art and entertainment is for comfort and escapism. Having those two things as part of the DNA of this book is helpful.

Did you know right away you wanted to format the book with words and accompanying illustrations?

The thing about the format I was excited about is that it’s a metaphor for the Twitter narrative. I like the idea that as you go through the book, you get different stories of different characters, and sometimes they interact, sometimes they don’t. I wanted to translate the narrative style of a Twitter timeline, which I hadn’t seen before. To me, that was an interesting part of the puzzle. How can I translate that to a book? I think having visual cues and illustrations to track things was a big part of that.

You talked about Twitter as an end goal, and you obviously have a lot of different options as to what you want to do next in your career. Has putting together this book provided any clarity as to your future plans?

There are more options now which might lead to less clarity. I don’t think I’ve ever been someone to figure out one path and stick to it. I’m not sure I want to do another book like this again. I’m trying to think about what interests me for my next step. I did a play in Toronto in October. I’ve always been a theater kid. I’m interested in figuring out how to do another play. It’d be nice to do another book, but maybe not in illustrated form. I’m not sure. Right now, I’m trying to keep everything open, and see what excites me the most.