Stranger in a Strange Land: Exiles Quiet Power
A CatCo Magazine Exclusive
By Cat Grant
Kara Kent (25) is standing dead center in The Bronze, Metropolis’s most exclusive gallery when I arrive, surveying the results of three years of hard work. She greets me with a hug that knocks the breath out of me. Tells me she still has a few things to sort out and to please look around.
Arranged in a half circle are thirty paintings, each inset into a small booth, a small post-it beside each one. When I point to the post-its Kara sings out from across the room, “Official plaques and descriptions are coming tomorrow.”
Exiles is a series of landscapes, each work named for the contributor and the location depicted in it. Painted from the artist's imagination and first hand accounts of locals who have left their homelands and not returned. Intermixed with landscapes that depict a bustling street market in Syria, a hill village in Cambodia, a group of children swimming at waterfall in Venezuela are paintings of Earthrise from a crater on Mars, a group singing on the crystal mountains of the planet Sedenach, a robot hammering metal at forge on the planet Korugar.
I stop in front of the painting of a lush jungle, an domed palace rising above it. It could be on Earth if there were not four moons visible in the sky. “Tamaran,” Kara says from behind me. “They were attacked two years ago by the Citadel, a race of slavers. Earth has a refugee population who fled the occupation.”
Centered in the circle is the painting that has garnered the most interest since Kara announced its existence. Krypton, the post-it beside it reads.
By the time this article has been published, Exiles will have been open for a week. It will no doubt invite controversy.
The human race has only been aware of the intergalactic community for four years now since I published an interview with Supergirl where she confirmed her status as an alien and the last survivor of the planet Krypton. Since then humans have been increasingly aware of alien populations among us and both the threat they pose and the opportunities they can offer us.
Kara Kent has been aware that we were not alone in the galaxy since she was a small child. “One of Argo’s suppliers was a Xudarian merchant. I never found out how my family knew him.” At my look of confusion she clarifies, “Xudarians are a race of aliens who developed on an aquatic planet. Bright orange skin, a beak, and a crest.”
Kara got involved with the alien population in America while she was still in college. “I picked up a kinda generic flyer from the psych building one day calling for open minded volunteers for a study. It promised free food and compensation so I took my roommates and checked it out. There was two rounds of screening and they cut more than three-fourths of the original participants before they told us anything.”
“The guy who ran the program was an Alstairan. They’re a telepathic species, evolved from plants into humanoids after they made first contact and have the loveliest pale green skin. They can project a telepathic field that will fool people who don’t get too close. He dropped the field in the third round and told us to take notes, there will be a test at the end. It was a very effective tactic for coming out.
“It remains the most interesting powerpoint presentation I’ve sat through.”
“You’ve read it,” She comments. “The Extraterrestrials Manifesto. He dropped it on Reddit right after Supergirl came out.”
The Extraterrestrials Manifesto or the ETM, for anybody who’s been living under a rock for the past four years, is the reference for anyone interested in learning more about aliens. An eighty slide powerpoint, written by a group of self identified second generation Americans, it breaks down the galaxy’s sociopolitical landscape with notes on different species, systems of government, contact policies, and races that operate outside those systems. It is an not exhaustive resource, the authors disclaimed on the very first slide, but it is a thorough one. The authors expressed the hope that it would act as a starter guide for humanity as we began to find our place in the galactic community. In the Extraterrestrial Studies departments that are being quietly formed in colleges across the country the ET Manifesto will be required reading.
For a species that has barely managed to visit our closest neighbor it is a deeply humbling read.
“It was a good job, maybe ten hours a week for fair pay and I made a lot of ‘international,’” here she lifts her fingers into airquotes, “friends. I sat interviews for remote jobs, toured apartments, changed money, and grocery shopped for a group of eight aliens. One of those was a Sedenachi. They’re a small species, three feet tall with violet fur and can sing crystalline structures into being. I’d sell the gems K’rzt sang into being for cash.”
“We got to be pretty good friends and I was hanging out at their apartment one day working on a project for school. They were telling me about the singing mountains of Sedenach. After a while I started sketching what they were telling me. It was just a rough sketch in charcoal but they nearly wept over it.”
“I drew a lot of alien landscapes over the next two years. After the first few I had a bit of a reputation for them. A lot of aliens on Earth are refugees who fled their homeworlds because of catastrophes- personal, political, or geological. The ability to see a bit of their homeland is a gift.”
“Speaking from personal experience?”
“A smidge.” She says, holding two fingers just the tiniest amount apart.
Kara Kent was raised in Argo, a commune in Alaska, founded by a group of intellectuals who prized scientific advancement until she was thirteen and tragedy struck. She lost her family to an experiment that destroyed the entire compound and was relocated to live with her estranged Aunt and Uncle in Smallville, Kansas.
“Smallville was very strange to me. We constructed and spoke a different language in Argo, had different customs. I was the object of a lot of curiosity at school and I struggled to make friends. My accent didn’t help.”
I ask her about that because her English is grammatically and idiomatically perfect, and she says, “I’ve learned to eliminate my accent but why should I? I’m proud of where I came from.”
It was not until in an effort to graduate Smallville’s High School early that Kara took a painting class through the community college that she began to heal. “My family didn’t go much for the arts.” She says matter of fact, “It was the first time I had something I was good at that didn’t hurt. So I clung to it and learned as much as I could.”
When Kara entered Metropolis University at seventeen she, much to the disappointment of Met U’s science departments, declared as an Art major. It was a minor scandal in academic circles at the time according to a former professor of hers, Doctor Emil Hamilton.
“Kara Kent’s admissions essay to the university was a proof of concept for a solar powered battery with a five year lifetime.” He tells me over lunch in the Met U’s cafeteria. “It was ten years ahead of the curve and created by Kara when she was sixteen years old. The competition to get her at our school was incredible. Then she arrived and decided to study art instead.”
“I thought it was a waste of her mind until I got to know her.” He says, something complicated passing over his face.
When it doesn’t seem like he’ll continue, I prompt, “And now?”
“Now,” He says, “I realize there was nothing we could have taught her. At least as an art major she was learning something new.”
The next day, two days before opening, I meet Kara at the unfortunately early hour of six in the morning. She’s wide awake, hair in a high ponytail, her face clear of makeup. When she sees me, she offers up one of the coffee cups she's holding, and does me the courtesy of not trying to speak to me until I’ve finished it.
The coffee is, unsurprisingly, perfect.
I must disclose, I have known Kara Kent professionally for five years, since I was assigned to cover her public appearances with Lex Luthor during my last days at The Daily Planet, and personally for three.
Caffeinated and slightly more awake, I watch Kara sign off on delivery of the plaques and descriptions she told me about yesterday as well as a box of glossy photographs. The paintings titles are engraved on stainless steel, the descriptions printed on thick white paper. The photographs are studio portraits of the Exiles, 8.5x11 inches tall, to be hung beside the descriptions.
Kara lies the photographs out in a line on the floor displaying a rainbow of people. Amongst humans, I see humanoid species with orange skin, wings, spikes. The non-humanoid species are the bottom of the pile- a giant lizard, a crystalline structure, an alien that looks like a giant purple hamster. Together we lie out the plaques and descriptions on the floor, matching them to the photographs. It’s a task made more difficult by the fact that while the painting’s names are bilingual, the descriptions are written exclusively in the native language of the titular Exile.
“I had to invent a program that could scan the different types of writing from the handwritten into blocks that that we could reproduce.” Kara tells me as we work, pointing to a particularly complicated bit of writing that slants right to left, bottom to top across the page.
I can’t help asking. “Which one is Supergirls?”
She shuffles papers for a minute, coming up with a sheet of paper covered in pictograms. The plaque, she pulls from a pile and tosses to me. In English it reads Supergirl, Krypton. Below that, in pictograms, is a line of text. My eyes catch on the famous ‘S’, the third character in the line, the last before the first comma that separates the words.
Kara sees it. “Supergirl said that was how she wrote her name on her home planet.”
“So it’s not an S?”
Two dozen college students arrive at nine am in various states of disarray, along with five dozen doughnuts and four carafes of coffee. Kara has them all grab a plate for the briefing and half an hour later the gallery is a hive of activity as they hang the plaques and descriptions. Kara flits from painting to painting, checking in with the students as she goes. They are mostly art students from Met University and happy to chat with Kara as they work.
“She’s very good about feeding us.” Belinda Zee, a fourth year Art major and friend of Kara’s tells me. “I’ve worked setup on three of Kara’s shows we’re always well looked after. Plus anybody who works gets an invite to opening night. That mattered less at her other shows but now she’s showing at The Bronze it’s a little different.”
By noon all the plaques are hung, the descriptions and photographs level. Lunch arrives, in the form of catering from a Dim Sum place four blocks over. With it comes the Luthors, each carrying a cardboard box.
The Luthors need little introduction to any resident of Metropolis, coming from a family that has shaped the city since its inception. They are a staple of the gossip pages, Metropolis’s first family.
Lex Luthor (27) is the CEO of Luthor Corp, a company that makes everything from batteries to vaccines. Mr. Luthor took over the company two years ago, after the death of his father Lionel Luthor. Under his leadership the company has refocused on green technology and a minimal impact footprint.
Lena Luthor (17) is Lex’s adopted sister, currently a first year student in Mechanical Engineering at Yale, and Kara Kent’s favorite brunch partner.
There have been rumors surrounding Lex Luthor and Kara Kent since she first appeared as his date to the annual Luthor Foundation charity gala, six years ago. Both deny romantic involvement with each other but Kara remains Lex Luthor’s favorite partner appearing on his arm at most events.
Most of those rumors are happy to ignore Kara’s history of collaboration with Mr. Luthor, now seven years old. Together they hold eleven joint patents on devices marketed and sold through Luthor Corp. They are currently filing for an twelfth, on a water filtration system that is both solar powered and biodegradable. They plan on donating one system to Splash International for every system sold.
It’s well beneath Lex Luthor’s pay grade to be schlepping for an artist and the sharp cut of his suit emphasizes that, though Lena Luthor, dressed down in jeans and a Supergirl t-shirt fits right in with the rest of the other volunteers. Both drop kisses on Kara’s cheeks, tuck the boxes they’re carrying out of the way and load up a paper plate with lunch. There’s a noticeable pause in the conversation as the students watch as Metropolis’s first billionaire sheds his suit jacket and sits on the floor to eat his lunch.
After lunch Kara opens up the boxes and shows us how to install the speakers inside. They’re prototypes of a product that will be released this summer, name to be determined, one of the many collaborations between Kara and Mr. Luthor. They are wireless, a home with two auxiliary speakers. Once we’ve set up one, on the painting Syria, Kara produces a box full of thumb drives and plugs it in. We’re treated to the sounds of Arabic, a three minute speech that is then repeated in accented English. Mrs. Rahma al-Saab tells the story of her painting, a market place she visited she visited as a child and young adult before she married and was moved to the states by her husband.
“Oh, good.” Kara says as it loops, breaking the silence we’ve fallen into. “It works.”
We’re eager to hear the rest after that and break into pairs that take a system and move to set is up. As each group finishes we call to Kara and she brings a thumb drive over. The Luthors, I notice, call dibs on Supergirl’s landscape. It’s the last finished and we gather eagerly to hear about Krypton. It’s a vista of jagged red rock, with lava flows cascading over sheer drops dominated by a red sun sitting low in the sky. In the foreground is a hovercraft, a glass dome, with a control panel and a set of chairs. There are three figures in the dome, one lying on the bottom face pressed to the glass. The other two are larger, indulgently pointing out the highlights of the landscape.
Supergirl tells the story of touring the Fire Falls on holiday with her parents and her fascination with the lava flow. “I would have joined the science guild,” the recording tells us, “if Krypton had lived.”
A discrepancy I notice only in hearing the other descriptions- Supergirl’s accent is flawlessly American, carefully parsed so that it doesn’t slip into any specific regional dialect. She avoids contractions, regionalisms, and idioms with the care of a nonnative speaker who has no wish to reveal herself as such.
“That’s the last of it.” Kara says. “We’ve got a bit cleanup and then you’re all welcome to spend as much time as you like looking around. If you want to hear every story it will take 90 minutes in total. We’re meeting for drinks down the road at six.”
The group disperses through the gallery, and I have Kara tour me through her top three favorites. Thangar, a city built into an enormous forest, winged humanoids wheeling above as Corvo Tal tells the story of watching aerial displays of the Military Corp from their home. Mars and J’on J’onz speaks of watching the Earthrise with his wife and their children, small green figures viewed from behind. And finally Zambia as Kabwe Aliomba tells the story of hunting a zebra as a teenager in the grasslands by his village.
“Not all of these stories are tragedies.” Kara says between paintings. “It’s a series about loss, but when I interviewed my subjects I asked them to describe their happiest memory of their homeland. I sought to capture that joy in my painting.”
She leaves me to tour the rest without her as she checks in with her helpers, listening to their opinions on her work.
Lex Luthor is still watching Krypton by the time I circle back to it. He startles when I stand next to him. “Forgive me.” He says. “It just struck me how much Kara lost when she came here.”
“And Supergirl?” I ask.
He smiles at me, an ironic tilt to it. “And Supergirl.” He acknowledges.
Over drinks, a tab that Lex Luthor picks up with little argument from the group. Kara defends her show and the ideas it brings forward- equating alien refugees to human ones and the need for protections within the system. She argues passing privilege and human rights with the art students refining her ideas against their commentary. Kara Kent believes that there should be a path to citizenship, pointing to the authors of the ETM, noting that they are american by virtue of their birth though most of them could not walk down a street without starting a panic.
She has written at length on those ideas here and my opinions on the subject are well known so I will leave that discussion to the critics.
The day before Exiles opens there is a dinner and private viewing session for the subjects of the paintings and their families. It’s catered with an open bar, some of Kara’s inventing money going to good use. I am welcome to attend, Kara tells me, as long as I treat all the guests equally. I’m invited to arrive early and I take her up on that. She’s dismissing the catering staff when I arrive to the Bronze’s hall.
“I don’t want to force anybody into a position to confront their tolerance.” She says. “They’ll be back to clean up after.”
She’s dressed for the occasion, hair in a updo and a sleek black dress. She greets her guests as they arrive and I understand her remark about testing tolerance as she presses kisses to cheeks that I have a hard time not recoiling from. The adults among the group are visibly nervous of their reception and are careful to stick to their species. A pack of children, human and alien alike has already cast aside their differences and is running wild underfoot.
The food is laid out buffet style and Kara has made a choice to have a mere handful of tall tables, forcing her guests to stand with their plates and mingle in groups. The atmosphere is awkward to say the least, until Kara moves in.
She moves from group to group pulling people in her wake, introducing them to each other. A Thanagarian is introduced to a Syrian pilot and ten minutes later they’re discussing aerodynamics with a mechanical engineer from Tamaran. I see Kara repeat this feat over and over again until the atmosphere shifts from tense to convivial. Groups of species mingle and break apart to reform differently around separate tables as they snack on appetizers.
Supergirl does not attend the dinner. Kara shrugs when asked. “I’m sure she’s busy.”
By the time they’ve finished the food, everybody is considerably more relaxed and Kara finds a chair to stand on. Even on it she is still shorter than the largest guests, Lizarkons, a race of orange skinned lizard people.
“I’ll be opening the doors to the main gallery in a few minutes but first I wanted to thank all of you for coming and for contributing your stories to this show. I literally could not have done this without you.” She pauses as a round of applause goes through the room. “Thank you! And please enjoy.”
All of the subjects have seen their paintings before. Kara consulted with them through every stage of the process, asking them to help her edit until the paintings were as true to life as possible. They wrote the statements in their native languages and recorded them in Kara’s studio but that doesn’t prepare her guests for the reality of show, thirty landscapes each telling a different story. I watch the crowd move through the show, pointing out details to their newfound friends, rehashing their stories a thousand different ways, some laughing, a few crying, and lose Kara in the press.
Eventually, I turn back to the open doors.
Supergirl is there, half hidden in the shadows, observing.
When I make my way to her, she greets me as watches the crowd pass her by. I suspect this is the first event she’s ever attended where she is not the main attraction.
“Here to see the results?”
“Ah. No. I came by yesterday.” She gestures at the crowd, “I wanted to see a group like this. Humans and aliens alike, telling their stories, intermixing. It’s not very common on Earth but it makes me hopeful.”
“Was it common on Krypton?”
She grimaces. “Not as common as I would have liked. We were a proud people. Too proud in the end. My education was interstellar; every year my parents took me offplanet for a month. I’ve visited a third of the planets represented here and some of them had looser immigration policies than Krypton. The marketplaces of other planets were the second most astounding thing I’d ever seen.”
“And the first?”
“The Fire Falls of course.” Supergirl glances sideways at me before she volunteers, “My family's motto is el mayarah . In English that literally translates into ‘stronger together’ but it loses nuance in that translation. What it is supposed to mean is that nobody is ever truly alone and so long as we remember that we will thrive.”
“This is el mayarah in practice,” she says gesturing to the crowd, “a group becoming stronger together.”
Supergirl cocks her head to one side, listening, “Excuse me Ms. Grant. I’m needed elsewhere.” She’s gone before I have the chance to ask more.
When I return to my apartment that night, I check the news. There’s footage of Supergirl stopping a convenience store robbery running on repeat on the local news. She’s talking the robber into giving her his gun, gently and carefully. When he gives it up, she smiles.
The event wraps two hours later and I watch as groups trickle out trading numbers, making plans to meet again. Kara looks tired but happy as she ushers the last of her guests out. When the catering staff returns, she pulls a bottle of wine and two glasses from behind the bar.
When I tell her Supergirl stopped by, she smiles. “To the survivors?” Kara offers as a toast and we clink glasses.
“Jeva.” She says and drinks.
I wait until we’re most of the way through the bottle before I ask, “Did you paint a work for yourself?”
“Of course.” She says, “It was going to hang opposite Krypton originally but frankly that seemed a little too egotistical. In the end, this show isn’t about me.”
“Could I see it?”
She pulls out her phone and fiddles with it for a moment, pulling up a photo, before turning it sideways, and handing it over. The painting is of a yellow farmhouse, a barn out back. It’s surrounded by green fields, a dirt road leading to the foreground. The mailbox is painted red and reads, Kent, in white letters across the side.
When Exiles closes the paintings will go home with the subjects, a permanent piece of their lost homelands. Kara Kent hopes that they will help the subjects remember that they are not alone.
Catherine Grant is a three time Pulitzer Prize winner and the founder and CEO of CatCo World Media. Her work has appeared in The Daily Planet, Vanity Fair, and CatCo Magazine. You can find more of her work here.