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Writer Jonathan Sun on translating the Weird Twitter experience for an IRL audience

Sun explains the “Aliebn” experience in his new illustrated novel.

Author Jonathan Sun has parlayed huge Twitter success into a heartfelt first book.
Photo by Christopher Sun.

The burgeoning viral subculture of Weird Twitter has yielded some truly incredible jokes and memes, but often there’s no deeper layer beyond the deliberate typos and ineffable anti-humor. The work of writer and artist Jonathan Sun is a rare exception: It’s impeccably tailored to Twitter’s constraints and contains all the absurdist hallmarks of typical Weird Twitter humor, but also features more heart and a keener understanding of the human experience than you’d get nearly anywhere else online.

A PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning by day, Sun has developed a massive, devout following with tweets that expertly toe the line between existential emoji shrugs and heartfelt reminders of the beauty of life. Originally a playwright and sketch comedian, Sun has now parlayed his Twitter mastery into a book, the touching illustrated novel Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, released in late June under the name Jomny Sun.

The book follows Sun’s alien character, Jomny, on a reconnaissance mission to Earth —or rather, as it’s written in Sun’s signature typo-riddled phonetic patchwork, “Eaerbth.” As Jomny tries to learn about the planet, he struggles with loneliness and self-doubt, while also befriending a litany of anthropomorphic animals and plants.

Sun, who also illustrated Aliebn, renders his fictional characters in broad, thick strokes and pleasingly clean black and white, but the book deals with many of the more complex feelings that so many of us experience, ranging from imposter syndrome to existential dread to how frighteningly open-ended the creative process can be.

While it incorporates some of Sun’s best-known tweets (including the one below), the book certainly stands on its own as a soulful read for those unfamiliar with his social media persona.

I recently chatted with Sun in the midst of his Everyone’s a Aliebn book tour (he returns to MIT in the fall). Here’s what he had to say about how the book was inspired by his academic experience, how Twitter has helped shape his comedy, and how he feels about the reaction to his book from both new and old fans. Sun’s responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On writing a book that appeals to more than his Twitter following

Ultimately I did want to make this book a very standalone piece and I tried to downplay its connection to the Twitter stuff as much as possible, in the way the book was talked about and marketed and even what’s on the back of the book. I didn’t want it to be like, “Here’s a book, as seen on Twitter, by a person on Twitter.”

I wanted it to be this standalone piece. The sorts of people I had in my head while I was working on the book were Shel Silverstein and his work, and Bill Watterson, who did Calvin and Hobbes. I was thinking about how I can create a work that pays tribute and respect to those types of works which were so integral to my childhood.

A spread from Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too that seems inspired by Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.
Harper Perennial

I’m so thrilled when I meet people who come to the book tour or message me who have found me through the book. That’s really rewarding to me in another way because it means the book stood as a project in itself.

On portraying the isolation and complexities of life in academia

The book really came out of this direct personal experience of starting my PhD program and being in this world of academia and feeling super alone and intimidated about what I was doing. That was also the first time I was really facing head-on my own mental health and my anxiety and my depression, it was the first time I’d started seeing a therapist.

A spread from Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too.
Harper Perennial

It was a big moment in my life of extreme self-reflection and introspection and solitude, so I think the book is very reflective of me trying to find ways to process that and put words and images to it. To find some sort of tangible way to describe and work through that point in my life.

I don’t think we talk enough about that kind of mental toll and that personal stress of being in the academic world and doing a graduate degree. I wish we talked about it more because it was something I felt like I was going through alone, and the more people I talk to, the more I hear that so many of us have been in these situations. The fact that no one is kind of talking about it to each other and everyone feels like they have to do it by themselves is something that I think we should be addressing more.

On the value of Twitter for comedians

I turned to Twitter because, as a writer of sketch comedy before, I realized that I could probably use Twitter as this way to kind of hone my ability to write jokes, because I’d always found that my jokes were a little too long and dragged a little too much. I thought that Twitter has these formal constraints, which is the reason why a lot of writers are on Twitter, because it forces you to make your ideas shorter and punchier and you get to the joke faster.

I think the cool thing about Twitter is that there are so many possibilities and different voices and perspectives online, but at the same time it all comes from this very hard constraint of the 140 characters and the text, and now image and video play more into that role, but really it’s amazing to see how much has come from this very narrow, limited set of moves you can make.

I think the most fun parts are when you have this idea you want to put out that’s like 10 characters too long and if it weren’t for Twitter you would just write that and be like, “Okay that’s great enough.” But because there is that constraint, it forces you [to rethink your approach], and there’s almost always a better way to word that idea that gets to the action faster. It’s so cool to have to exercise that part of your writing brain to get there.

On the decision to use animals and plants instead of humans to represent life on Earth

It’s a few things, one was just that I thought it was kind of more interesting or perhaps easier for people to relate. There’s a long tradition of animal characters in the place of humans, there is some sort of tendency or ability to relate to a nonhuman character, and I think for me I didn’t want to exclude any readers by having characters that didn’t necessarily look like them.

It also falls in this tradition of children’s books and children’s literature that uses animal characters to tell different stories and to use them as metaphors and symbols for different things.

A spread from Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too.
Harper Perennial

And then the other thing was that it was really fun to work with existing archetypes of animals, like the existing preconceptions. It was fun to take the setup of a beaver that works too hard and try to flip that, or the common knowledge of the wise owl and flip that and think about an owl that is trying to live up to that expectation. For me, part of the fun of that was trying to figure out what those preconceived notions were and flip them, it became a part of how I was developing the characters and developing those narratives.

On his fans coloring in the book and making it their own

I think the fact that people are taking the time to color it in and connect with it and make it their own is so amazing and so cool. It’s kind of what I used to do when I was a kid, I would treat books as coloring books or as things that you could take and make your own, and it’s so cool that people are doing that with this book as well.

It’s always cool to see how other people are interpreting these things, because I very much view all the illustrations in my head as black and white, I haven’t really thought about colors for any of the characters, so to see the choices that people make is always cool. It’s always cool to see those interpretations and see what they see in their head.

There have been people who’ve taken it and made watercolors on the pages, and applied different types of art and styles, and it’s all been so amazing and very humbling for me that people would find a connection and want to do this with something that I made.