Artist Jonny Sun discussed reconciling his creative side with Asian stereotypes at an Oct. 20 event hosted by the Emory Asian Student Organization (ASO).
The creator of graphic novel “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too” — written under pseudonym “Jomny Sun” — has a background in science and technology. He illustrated a recently released book with Lin-Manuel Miranda called “Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You.” Despite his prolific creative career, Sun has always had a strong interest in scientific and technological fields, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of Toronto and a master’s degree in architecture at the Yale School of Architecture (Conn.). Sun is now a doctoral candidate in urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Between studies, Sun has managed to make time for his creative work.
“I think I’ve always been into creative work … and I’ve always been kind of supported by my parents,” Sun said. “But that also comes with the caveat that you have to be good at math and science and everything … I’ve always been a person who’s done both of those things and tried to really push forward on all those fields at the same time.”
Sun’s most popular work thus far, “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too,” was intended to be “a really long kid’s book,” according to Sun.
“It’s about an alien who comes to earth to study humans but instead meets a bunch of animals and think they’re [the] humans and studies them instead,” Sun said. “And the animals are … prototypical symbols and metaphors of different aspects of … a personality or of mental health.”
An advocate for the destigmatization of mental health, Sun has been open about his journey with mental health and discussed toxicity in academia, depression and his experiences with therapy.
Sun often incorporates conversations about mental health into his tweets and written works, using his characters to reflect different elements of his mind.
“The egg [character], for example … represents my worry of … [what] unachieved potential looks like and what that means,” Sun said. “Like, am I hatching, or should I hatch — or have I hatched already?”
The story, “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too,” evolved from Sun’s illustrations and tweets, and is peppered with slight misspellings of common words, including “aliebn” and “ur.” Sun deliberately incorporated typos into his work to challenge the stereotype that non-native English speakers make specific grammatical mistakes.
“When I was in comedy, like, before I started Twitter, a lot of … the jokes that people wanted me to do were about … my Asian-ness,” Sun, who has garnered over 571,000 followers on Twitter, said. “I always kind of grew up seeing my parents get made fun of or see my parents … be seen as these outsiders and … I didn’t want to [use any] grammatical error style that is related to [those stereotypes].”
As a longtime fan of Sun’s works, ASO Co-President Irena Kuan (20C) invited Sun in hopes of sharing his insights with a greater audience.
“I was struck by his humor and style that [were] both whimsical,” Kuan said. “It had melancholy elements to it, [too].”
For audience members who could relate to Sun’s anecdotes, the talk was a reassuring experience.
“It’s really interesting for somebody who has succeeded in a field [uncommon] for Asians … to talk about their experiences [and] … understand the effects of having an Asian identity,” said Eunice Kang (21C).
Emory alumna Anjie Yang (17C) attended the event after following Sun on Twitter.
“I think [what resonated with me most was] navigating and like finding what you want to do [despite] … the cultural stress and the issues that we feel as Asian-Americans,” said Yang. ”Hearing how [Sun] found his way was really inspiring to me.”
Though his work may seem simple and goofy at first glance, Sun writes purposefully and introspectively, inviting his readers to ponder topics such as mental health, following one’s dreams and being Asian. By combining humor and art to tackle deeper personal issues, Sun paves the way for the continuation of such conversations.