She was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father. She was adopted by a white couple, grew up in Bishopbriggs, East Dunbartonshire, a suburb of Glasgow, and studied English at the University of Stirling. 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 First Book Award 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 his life.
She had a relationship for 15 years with the poet Carol Ann Duffy.