Sherwin Tjia pushes Toronto out of its comfort zone
Sherwin Tjia knows how to keep himself busy. In between his day job as a medical illustrator, this Scarborough-born artist (who has since relocated to Montreal) coordinates events across Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa with a twist. If you haven't attended Sherwin's Slowdance Night, Cardboard Fort Party, Crowd Karaoke or Strip Spelling Bee, be forewarned these events will force you to see your city in a very surprising way. Usually dressed in drag, Tjia hosts with great humor and confidence, with the intent to take event-goers out of their comfort zone.
In addition to his event planning career, Tjia has published both poetry (2005's The World Is A Heartbreaker) and graphic novels. 2009's The Hipless Boy chronicled a hapless protagonist making his way through Montreal's art scene with extreme tenderness. This week, he'll convince the scholastic to strip down to their skivvies at Buddies in Bad Times for another edition of his Strip Spelling Bee, and launch his new book You Are A Cat!, a choose-your-own adventure style narrative from the point of view of a feline.
I talked to Sherwin over email about his book launch, why he'd love to host a speed dating event for the suicidal, and the differences between Montreal and Toronto.
Your new book is a choose-your-own-adventure based on the travels of a cat. Was it challenging working within this format?
Yes, my book is inspired by the old "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" or "Give Yourself Goosebumps" gamebooks series. I read a lot of these as a kid and I like the format, so You Are a Cat! Is the first in my fictional "Pick-a-Plot" gamebook series. My main challenge was coming up with choices that a cat could reasonably have, but also to tell an interesting and compelling narrative that took you through an actual day in the life of you, as Holden Catfield.
You write about cats often, yet you do not own one yourself. Why is this?
I don't own a cat because my apartment is not right for one. You know how people always have plans for their children? Like, my kid will go to university, my kid will become a lawyer, that sort of thing? If I had a cat, I would have plans for it, too. One of the best things about making the book is that I can write my dream life for any cat that I might have. I would want my cat to go out, have a life, get in fights, kill things, have a girlfriend.
I like that cats are so unimpressed by things until there is something that interests or concerns them, and then that thing is the whole world for them. I also like that cats are soft and comfortable and will show their fuzzy belly to you, but at the same time, are serial killers who will go out into the world and basically commit a songbird genocide. They are deeply complicated creatures.
How do you come up with your ideas for events?
I like to go with my appetites, so I think to myself, what do I like to do? And then I try to come up with an event where people can do that thing, whether it's slowdancing, strip-spelling, or crowd karaoke. Usually it's an activity that's being done already, but with a twist. I also like to put things in place so people can feel comfortable and safe to do this daring thing that I am asking of them. With slowdancing, it's the designated dancers for the shy whose job it is to bring you out onto the dance floor. With Strip Spelling Bee, it's our no photos policy. And if you compete, you only have to strip down to what you are comfortable with.
If you could throw any event in Toronto--your craziest, most fantastical idea--what would it be?
Either Speed-Spooning (it's exactly like speed-dating, but you spoon the person), or Deathmatch, a singles night for suicidal people (this idea is based on the notion that people kill themselves because they are very alone). I think if I actually did either of those ideas, however, no one would actually show up.
People in Toronto have this huge idealization of Montreal. We think you have more fun. What are the differences between the two cities when it comes to an attitude towards going out and socializing?
I'm from Scarborough and I have a huge love for Toronto, but it's true that Toronto and Montreal are very different. Toronto is like the Beatles, and Montreal is the Rolling Stones. Toronto is Sidney Crosby, and Montreal is Alex Ovechkin. Toronto wants very much to be cool, and Montreal wants very much to have sex with you. I think part of the reason Montreal remains cool is because it's difficult to gentrify the city. Language remains a problem. For the most part, you need to be bilingual to live here. If Montreal were just another English-speaking city, it would quickly be over-run with hipsters and become Williamsburg. Prickly language politics is this city's blessing and curse.
But while Montreal is more "fun," Toronto is good at actually getting things done, finding funding, creating websites, getting a book deal, turning a weird concept into a TV series. Montreal is a smaller pond with less access to power, so people can afford to do weird things here and make mistakes.
But I think the most telling thing about Montreal is that recently a potential candidate for mayor, Gilbert Rozon, suggested that Montreal extend its bar hours to 6 a.m. from the 3 a.m. it currently is. It's an actual suggestion that people are going to debate. That kind of sums up its essence.
Your book says "even something as trivial as deciding whether or not to purr can result in dramatic changes." Are all the outcomes for Holden Catfield fairly ghastly?
In the book, there are eight possible ways to die, but you do have nine lives.
Some of the outcomes are really bad, but I omitted one ending that is probably the commonest way for a city cat to die — being euthanized at a shelter. I don't know why I did that. Probably because I experienced that first hand — holding onto my cat years ago while I had it killed.
What can people expect from your book launch?
I'm giving a Powerpoint presentation! Or rather, a Purrerpoint purresentation on how the book was made, and the various influences and challenges involved in making a work of interactive fiction. Also, I am launching my CD, The E-Z-Purr, an audio CD of over an hour of cats purring. It's quite loud. When you play it, it sounds like there's a ten-foot cat in the room with you purring. Finally, Mischa Glouberman, the host of Trampoline Hall, and I are going to have a (hopefully charming) conversation!
Sherwin's Strip Spelling Bee is at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street) this Friday, November 4th, 2011. Sign-up at 10:30 p..m Bee starts at 11 p.m. $10 at the door. 19+
The launch of You Are a Cat! is on Saturday, November 5, 2011 at The Drake Underground, 1150 Queen Street West. Doors open at 2:30 p.m.; Event starts at 3:00 p.m. Admission is $5.00 or FREE with a book purchase.