Exploring “Humamnity” with Jonny Sun

Jonny Sun released his first book this year: Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur an Aliebn Too. The book is an illustrated account following the character at the center of Sun’s Twitter account, an alien named Jomny on a never-ending quest to make sense of humanity (and himself). The message and tone of the book are consistent with the character we have come to know from Sun on Twitter, where his use of an outsider’s perspective has allowed many to reflect humorously on some of the more complicated and intricate puzzles of modern life. Due in part to Twitter’s character limit, Sun’s work online may deceptively appear at times simplistic or reductive. However, Sun makes talented use of the space given to present ideas that extend far beyond the limits of 140 characters and that are bound to inspire serious reflection for weeks to come. This first book, at long last, provides Sun with much-needed space to expand.

The subject of my last conversation with Sun was his focus on creating community through humor and philosophy, and that focus is very much still at the heart of his new book. Through a cast of unique characters, Sun explores some of the topics that plague us all. We follow bees questioning the meaning of love, birds afraid of the unknown, a hedgehog having an extraordinarily hard time getting started on creative projects, and even a personification of nothingness that questions the value of its own (non?)existence. The book even comes with ringing endorsements from the likes of Lin Manuel-Miranda, Patton Oswalt, and Joss Whedon.

When Sun and I met to discuss the book, he explained how he set out to examine the issues at the heart of each character, the value of nothing, and an underlying post-apocalyptic narrative you might not have noticed.

Last time we talked, you were still putting together some new ideas for projects and gearing up to produce your play Dead End. Do you feel like you’ve developed in any particular ways since?

I think I’m a little more confident that I have something to say, I guess. Or confident in my ability to pull it off, and to put something of a larger scale together that I’m happy with and that I feel works. I’m kind of letting that feeling settle in a bit, and hopefully it’ll help me with different projects.

Has that affected what routes you’re focusing on creatively?

I’d like to write more plays and a few more long-form projects. And maybe a bigger scale project. I think this experience has really helped me prove to myself that I’m capable of putting something together and following through.

So I assume you relate most to the hedgehog in your book?

[laughs] That really is the character that I’m most like.

So was it sort of autobiographical?

Yeah, I mean, all the characters were different split pieces of me. But the hedgehog really was my… It was sort of the meta-commentary on doing a piece of creative work, and putting that anxiety into the creative work that I was doing.

That seems like kind of a big task, taking yourself apart and putting yourself into each of those characters.

Yeah, absolutely. I like to say they’re like horcruxes of myself, like I split up a lot of my worries and anxieties and thoughts and feelings about the world and put them into each of these characters. They all kind of represent one aspect of myself.

Towards the end of the book, you reveal something that I somehow didn’t even notice until it was addressed. Jomny was sent to study humans and the entire time he’d been talking with animals, and then we find out that the story takes place after all the humans died out somehow.

It was kind of a struggle to figure out how explicit to make that fact. Actually, I didn’t want to say it, but have it just be more implied, and have it be something that people could fan theory about or kind of plausibly say, “I think this is why Jomny’s not talking to any of the humans.”  But I think there’s a bit of a posthumanist perspective of, like, maybe the current way humans are forming society is the problem, and it’s kind of getting in the way of any sort of true peace. I also like the idea that, with it being revealed at the end, it kind of re-contextualizes the book. And that darkness is sort of present throughout the story that is, at face value, a little more cute and gentle, and now sort of post-apocalyptic. Like to me, that fills the balance of darkness and lightness that really makes me happy.

Yeah, that seems to be a theme you gravitate toward. You mentioned near the end of the last interview that one thing that might make people’s lives better was “acknowledging we’re all going to die.” I think I particularly enjoyed the way you had the birds handle that, with their fear of the sun going down; they’re so preoccupied with the fear that “the lentil” in the sky will go behind the horizon and never come back.

Yeah, that was looming in the corner of every page. I also like the idea that all of these characters are affected by this enormous all-human extinction. I was writing the book imagining that all of the characters were aware of that, and have kind of lived through that major disaster and were sort living with this sort of survivor’s guilt and grief. They were more open about what they’re going through because they collectively went through this big event.

After I finished working that out, I think there was a big metaphor for the election last year. The book was written basically from the spring of that year and I finished in the spring of this year, so the progress of the book and the writing of it went through the entire election. From primaries, to the vote, to the actual election, to the inauguration and into this Trump world we live in now. I think there are ways that that really affected both the way I put the book together and also the reading of it.

I think it was definitely hard if not impossible for pretty much all of us to separate our feelings about the election from the work we’ve produced. And it’s interesting because, from my perspective, that actually went pretty deep into your writing. Again, you have such a focus on community, and here we have all of these animals with their little existential knots that they’re trying to undo, and they’re all sort of united in that. They’re all working through something together and creating this community. And then you were writing this at a time when everyone seemed more fractured than ever. I guess, bearing that in mind, what would you say is the through line that strings all of the characters together?

I think what each character goes through is a desire to be open and to connect with somebody else. Even though the book is about the alien Jomny, my entire philosophy for it was to follow this alien and essentially have him as just a sort of side character to all the other characters on their journey through development.

So Jomny is more of a listener. If the other character is looking for connection and looking for someone to be open with, having a character who is explicitly there to listen and to observe is really helpful, because now there is this really therapeutic character for them to talk to.

So yeah, I would say the through line for all the characters is… I wanted to promote the idea that talking about this stuff and being open with it can be very helpful. It can lead to better relationships with people and can lead to forming a community. I pictured that the world of the characters before the alien landed were more isolated and were kind of… Everyone working through their own stuff by themselves. And then the presence of the alien finally gave them an excuse to open up and talk about it, and through talking they were able to heal.

And it’s also helpful that Jomny approaches every interaction with a sort of constant thought: “I don’t understand this. I need somebody to explain.”

I wanted to have Jomny be a character without any sort of preconceived notions. Or preconceived biases, I should say. I mean, it’s no coincidence that I started seeing a therapist right before I started figuring out how to write this book. I read this really great book called The Examined Life. It’s written by a therapist, Stephen Grosz, and it’s all these short chapters about his clients and his relationship with his clients. So I was thinking a lot about what that meant – the fact that I got to go to therapy and talk to someone who’s trained to listen and ask questions and try to break through these things. I also realized that I’m the type of person who generally is more of an aspirant listener than someone who likes to talk about themselves, so I was just mulling over what that means, basically.

If your goal is just trying to understand someone else, I think that’s a pretty cool thing you can do. What’s helped me a lot is being more comfortable with being open and with talking about these things, and really not treating it with stigma from the outside. I definitely grew up around people who didn’t really talk about mental health at all. I tried actively to be more open about it and it took a lot of work to destigmatize those discussions just for myself.

I think if you let go of that – if you let go of the stigma and the biases that go with it and just feel more open and safe in discussing it, or even just open and safe in just talking about it with yourself, accepting it and working through it, without those preconceived notions – it’s been enormously helpful for me.

That makes sense. That would really provide a context to sort of tease out each of those problems that pop up in the book. How did you go about grouping those problems and exploring them?

I really sat down and thought about things that were the big sources of existential angst that bothered me, and just writing them out. It was kind of like a matching game. For example, especially having just gotten into a PhD program where I’m surrounded by all these brilliant people, imposter syndrome is something I constantly deal with, feeling like a fraud. Imposter syndrome was something that I really wanted to write about, and part of the game of that was to find which character matches that – not just like “What would be a good character for this?” but also playing with the symbolism of some of these animals. So the owl made a lot of sense to me because in classical literature, the owl is a symbol for wisdom. I thought it was really fun to take that symbol and play with it, to the point where the owl is the one feeling imposter syndrome. There was fun in pairing some of the storylines or some of the anxieties with a certain character. Some of them are silly, like the “otter auteur” was just silly enough for me to be like okay, let’s just roll with it. And that’s sort of something I learned from BoJack Horseman – you’ve gotta balance silliness with darkness. I’ve got a fun gag in there that probably no one has picked up on that the hedgehog is a very slow moving character, and our most popular hedgehog in culture is Sonic. So here’s a hedgehog character who is taking a lot of time to reach his goal.

One of the other characters that you came back to a few times, and I thought it was so great that you made it a character, was Nothing. What particularly appealed to you about Nothing that you wanted to focus on it in the book as its own persona?

Even before writing the book I had been writing longer-form personal essays on Instagram, and I realized that a lot of those thoughts were centered around solitude and the idea of what it means to be comfortable being yourself and being by yourself and taking up space as one person in the world. I’d written this book in basically extreme solitude; there were weeks that would go by without me really interacting with another person face-to-face. So it naturally became one of the things I wanted to talk about, solitude.

There were a few pieces that led to the actual character of Nothing, one of the most significant was in the book Goodnight Moon. There’s a page where the narrator says “Goodnight nothing” and it’s a blank page. It’s like, “Goodnight bed, goodnight window,” then nothing, then it goes back to saying goodnight to other things. I remember seeing that and being like, “This is kind of mind blowing.” So I had that in my head I’d been reading a lot about solitude. David Mamet has a book of essays called Writing in Restaurants, and the essay that book is named after is about the joy of just sitting in a space, taking up space, and writing. So I was thinking about my relationship with solitude and nothingness, and that’s kind of what it became.

And it can certainly feel like, especially when you’ve got a lot going on, Nothing becomes a much more important character to value. Sort of for all of us these days, too, since so many of us are just constantly plugged into our phones, on social media, things like that.

Yeah, I really started to value time off, time to take breaks, and started to really value the ability to sit and be by myself and enjoy that. When I was working on the book I felt like I had to get into the headspace of a lot of the book as well, so I might have forced myself into solitude a bit more. I would go see movies by myself, go to dinner by myself. Really just valuing that, really valuing that space and life and its fullness. I wanted to put that in somehow, and just make an argument that it’s important to acknowledge this and that it’s got value.

Photo by Christopher Sun.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

Exploring “Humamnity” with Jonny Sun