By Parker Molloy
Jonny Sun is a jack-of-a-few-very-specific-trades. You might know him as the author and illustrator of 2017’s everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too, a heartwarming book about an extraterrestrial who is sent to study the many creatures of Earth and learns an important lesson about self-acceptance along the way. Or possibly you heard that he’d be illustrating Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, due out later this month. Maybe you’re one of the more than half a million people who follow him on Twitter, or you’ve seen his Tiny Care Bot pop across your feed with reminders like “remember to drink a bit of water please” and “please get some fresh air.” Or perhaps you’re just a big fan of architects and MIT doctoral students, of which he is both.
Or maybe you don’t know him at all — and that’s okay. He can be a bit hard to pin down, but that’s all part of his charm.
“I really don’t like introducing myself, because I’m still not sure how to yet,” he says. “Usually there are a lot of slashes — writer-slash-artist-slash-designer-slash-researcher — but I don’t find that really satisfactory, because I don’t think any of those labels really fit properly. In general, I find those labels to be restrictive, and it makes me want to shout, ‘People can be more than one thing!’”
The 28-year-old from Toronto worries that by assigning himself a designation based on whatever he’s working on at the moment, he’ll feel as though his identity is set in stone, when there’s so much growing and living left to do. If there is one — admittedly vague — thing that he wants to be known for, it’s simply being someone who makes things. When you’re as creative and talented as Sun, cultivating that kind of ambiguity is probably for the best.
He has a passion for creation, and it’s through this passion that he finds unexpected connections to personal and collective humanities. In his mind, it’s just not possible to separate Jonny Sun the writer from Jonny Sun the academic or Jonny Sun the illustrator. Many of his wide-ranging interests share tenuous, otherwise easily ignorable links. Through his work, he reinforces those links and applies them widely. The end result is clear, unique simplicity.
“Engineering and comedy and playwriting are all about structures and patterns. I think being able to exercise identifying those structures and making those patterns applies to all sorts of different things, and that kind of ability is strengthened when you get to practice it in all sorts of different settings and contexts and disciplines,” he says. “The relationship between the doctoral student and the author is mainly that they are both trying to better figure out how the world works, and how people work. Through my doctoral work, I’m trying to understand that from design perspectives and sociological ones; through writing, I’m trying to do that by creating characters and trying to portray how they interact with the world.”
His interests and pursuits, as varied as they are, feed into one another in surprising and constructive ways. For instance, had it not been for the time he’s spent on Twitter or the experience he’s had at MIT, he says he likely would never have written everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too. The book, he notes, is a loosely autobiographical look at the brushes with anxiety, depression, and loneliness he’s had as he’s navigated academia.
His heavy workload — as well as the fact that he’s currently splitting time between New York, Los Angeles, and Boston — has turned his life into what he calls a “constantly shifting maelstrom.” He finds peace in simple things like cooking, caring for his plants, and going to the movies. For him, keeping constants like those in his life is essential for staying grounded.
Sun hopes his legacy will be that he made people happy and encouraged them to find and recognize their own capacity for self-acceptance. Too often, he notes, people are defined by parts and not the whole. Our jobs, our relationships, our triumphs, and our defeats are cherry-picked by those around us and shaped into clean, uncomplicated narratives. Sun describes his many professional identities as “warring factions,” but it’s only through the scope of all his work and his full personality that we begin to get more than a glimpse of the portrait those factions have illustrated.
Sun’s self-portrait is a guide for the rest of us — not for how to live our lives but for how to think about them. One lesson is to remember that you don’t have to do it all yourself, and you probably can’t. The importance of having a stable support system is something that just doesn’t get nearly enough discussion.
“I am really grateful to be part of really great teams and communities,” he says. “I have really wonderful friends who I can talk to about all these things, I have a therapist, and I have an extremely wonderful and generous partner who I would never be able to get anything done without. [I think what the world needs is to dissolve] the lone-artist myth — none of this happens because of one person — and I am grateful and lucky to have a really vast network of support in all these different fields as I work through them. And without that, everything would be impossible.”
The roles we play in one another’s lives aren’t always obvious, and sometimes neither are the ones we play in our own. In many ways, we’re all Sun’s alien — in the sense that life is best measured in terms of personal growth, our quest for knowledge, and our capacity for empathy. We are forever a part of something wonderful and beautiful, uplifting and sad, and it’s in our best interest to embrace the ride.
Parker Molloy is a writer whose work — centering on media, culture, and politics — has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy. She lives in Chicago, IL, with her wife, dog, cat, and two rabbits.