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. They adopted Kay in 1961 having already adopted Kay’s brother, Maxwell, about 2 years earlier.
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 Billy Tipton. She writes extensively for children, stage and screen. She lives in Manchester with her son, Matthew.
Kay became a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) on 17 June 2006.
She currently teaches creative writing at Newcastle University. 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.