There's something in the way Jonny Sun tells stories that makes you feel like he can see right through you. No matter the medium, he speaks directly to readers, inviting us to intimate conversations on loneliness, belonging and burnout.
Goodbye, Again came into my life after I had just moved out of my L.A. apartment, into another temporary home in the Midwestern suburbs. A physical copy of Sun's collection of essays, reflections and illustrations was, in fact, the first package to arrive at my new address, where I had yet to unpack my own box of books, let alone three suitcases.
In his latest book, Sun speaks directly to people, like me, whose lives are composed of constant transitions. Aware of and experienced in goodbyes, the writer course-corrects his energy to the present, to reorient himself in the communities around him. He strives to "fill the blankness" of weekends in the city; but "instead of turning to people, or to hobbies, or to Going Places or Seeing Things, I find it easiest to turn to doing more work to try to fill, or perhaps keep at bay, that emptiness and that feeling I can't ever fill that emptiness enough," he writes. In an unserious tone, he confronts this learned response of coping with loneliness through productivity. It's a conversation Sun had initiated through his alien character Jomny in his 2017 graphic novel, Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too — except this time around, he deals with burnout in his own, more personal, voice.
A soothing succulent
A soothing succulent
When he doesn't have all the words to tell a story, the multihyphenate blends genres, mixing artistic medium like recipes and illustrations with written word. "Whenever I am in an unfamiliar place, it has become a coping mechanism for me to look for plants that I recognize from elsewhere, and to look for plants that I've never seen before anywhere else but that I can start recognizing as familiar," he writes, then illustrates with succulents on another page. His love of plants serves as a metaphor for feeling rooted to his communities and a reminder for what we can learn from them: rest is a necessity; growth takes time; some things don't change.
Honest and opinionated, Sun feels like your friend. His words never push you in any particular direction but let you dwell in them. From MSN Messenger and jazz music to Tetris, the book considers a variety of topics, so transitioning from one essay to another may require you to step back and reflect on all the big ideas within the span of a few pages. The layout, divided into six parts, from "Goodbye," "Hello" to "Goodbye, Again," allows for the option of taking breaks between any stories, should you need it. It's rare that a book will physically accommodate what the writer seeks to accomplish — to provide breathing room for you to sit with loneliness and burnout, even if it means you are temporarily leaving his world to do so.
Back in real life, Sun is a Chinese-Canadian digital creator, writer, artist, and his long list of titles goes on. It isn't always apparent that his respective stories are tied to his identities, but every essay in Goodbye, Again is peppered with nuances informed by his constant moves, self-imposed expectations and bittersweet goodbyes, recognizable at first sight to another third culture kid in America. With these reflections, Sun is adept at selecting tidbits that a wider audience can relate to, like feeling misplaced in his childhood home but finding community at a neighborhood restaurant.
Through Goodbye, Again, I have returned to making eggs for breakfast, as a way of feeling connected to my mom who recently returned to her home country. My multiple failed attempts at a bowl of steamed eggs with shredded green onions led to one final resort: a phone call to my parents, whom I hadn't spoken with since the new year. And Sun was right — "the secret is in the eggs." Family recipes and familiar plants really have their ways of helping us reorient our lives in new places. Since making one call and three mediocre eggs, I already feel more grounded here than I did during my seven-month stay on the West Coast.
Warm weather is finally on its way, following an extended year of transitions, and it's time for all of us to take better care of ourselves and each other. Truly, there's no shame in taking a break from books during the pandemic. But if you're feeling ready to reach out, try starting with Goodbye, Again. Take my word for it — let Jonny Sun into your life.
Janet W. Lee is a Korean writer from the Midwest and a podcast producer at NPR. Connect with her on Twitter @thatjanetlee.