Ai is a multiracial American woman. Her mother’s immediate ancestors were African American, Native American (Choctaw), and European American (Irish and Dutch). Her father’s ancestors were Japanese. Ai has said that the history of her family is the history of America. She does not find her identity in any racial group. She insists on the uniqueness of personal identity. One of the aims of her work is to destroy stereotypes. She has said that she is “irrevocably tied to the lives of all people, both in and out of time.” Consequently, whoever “wants to speak” in her poems “is allowed to speak regardless of sex, race, creed, or color.”
Ai grew up in Tucson, Arizona. When she was seven, her family moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, for a year, then spent two years in San Francisco, California, before returning to Tucson. They moved again when Ai was twelve, this time to Los Angeles, California, returning again to Tucson three years later, when Ai was fifteen. Ai attended Catholic schools until the seventh grade. Her first poem, written when she was twelve, was a response to an assignment by the nuns to write a letter from the point of view of a Christian martyr who was going to die the next day. When she was fourteen, intending to enter a contest for poems about a historical figure, Ai began writing poems regularly.
History was Ai’s best subject in high school, which she attended in Tucson. At the University of Arizona, also in Tucson, Ai found her identity in the “aesthetic atmosphere” of intellectual life. She was graduated from the university in 1969 with a degree in Oriental studies. She earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine in 1971. When Ai published her first book of poetry, Cruelty, in 1973, she became a nationally known figure, so striking were her grimly realistic and violent poems. Ai married the poet Lawrence Kearney in 1976. In 1979, her second book, Killing Floor, won the Lamont Poetry Prize. She separated from Kearney in 1981, and the couple divorced in 1984. In 1986, her third book, Sin, won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. She has since published Fate in 1991 and Greed in 1993.