Jackie Kay was born in Edinburgh in 1961 to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. She was adopted by a Scottish white couple Helen and John Kay and brought up in Bishopbriggs, a suburb of Glasgow.
Kay was brought up in a 1950s-built Glasgow housing estate in a small Wimpey house, which her adoptive parents had bought new in 1957. They adopted Kay in 1961 having already adopted Jackie's brother, Maxwell, about 2 years earlier. Jackie and Maxwell also have siblings who were brought up by the genetic parents. Kay's adoptive father worked for the Communist Party full-time and stood for Member of Parliament, and her adoptive mother was the Scottish secretary of CND. In August 2007 Kay was the subject of the fourth episode of The House I Grew Up In, in which she talked about a happy childhood in a stimulating, albeit unconventional, home.
Initially harbouring ambitions to be an actress, she decided to concentrate on writing after Alasdair Gray read her poetry and told her that writing was what she should be doing. She studied English at the University of Stirling and her first book of poetry, the partially autobiographical The Adoption Papers, was published in 1991, and won the Saltire Society Scottish First Book Award. Her other awards include the 1994 Somerset Maugham Award for Other Lovers, and the Guardian Fiction Prize for Trumpet, based on the life of American jazz musician Billy Tipton, born Dorothy Tipton, who lived as a man for the last fifty years of her life.
Kay writes extensively stage, screen, and for children. In 2010 she published Red Dust Road, an account of her search for her birth parents, a white Scottish woman, and a Nigerian. Her birth parents had met when her father was a student at Aberdeen University and her mother was a nurse. Her drama The Lamplighter is an exploration of the Atlantic slave trade. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in March 2007 and published in poem form in 2008.
Jackie Kay became a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) on 17 June 2006. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Kay lives in Manchester.