Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1961 to a Scottish mother and an Igbo father. She was adopted by a white couple at birth and was brought up in Glasgow, studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Stirling University where she read English.
The experience of being adopted by and growing up within a white family inspired her first collection of poetry, The Adoption Papers (1991). The poems deal with an adopted child's search for a cultural identity and are told through three different voices: an adoptive mother, a birth mother and a daughter. The collection won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award and a commendation by the Forward Poetry Prize judges in 1992. The poems in Other Lovers (1993) explore the role and power of language, inspired and influenced by the history of Afro-Caribbean people, the story of a search for identity grounded in the experience of slavery. The collection includes a sequence of poems about the blues-singer Bessie Smith. Off Colour (1998) explores themes of sickness, health and disease through personal experience and metaphor. Her poems have appeared in many anthologies, and she has written widely for stage and television.
Her first novel, Trumpet, published in 1998, was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Inspired by the life of musician Billy Tipton, the novel tells the story of Scottish jazz trumpeter Joss Moody whose death revealed that he was, in fact, a woman. Kay develops the narrative through the voices of Moody's wife, his adopted son and a journalist from a tabloid newspaper. Her books, Why Don't You Stop Talking (2002) and Wish I Was Here (2006), are collections of short stories, and she has also published a novel for children, Strawgirl (2002). Her collection of poetry for children, Red, Cherry Red (2007) won the 2008 CLPE Poetry Award.
Her novella, Sonata, was published in 2006; her book of poems Darling: New and Selected Poems in 2007; and her dramatised poem, The Lamplighter, in 2008. The Lamplighter was shortlisted for the 2009 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Her Maw Broon Monologues, performed at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, and combining rhythmic verse and music, were shortlisted for the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.
Her latest book is Red Dust Road (2010), a memoir about meeting her Nigerian birth father. Jackie Kay lives in Manchester. In 2006, she was awarded an MBE for services to literature.