Ai, who described herself as 1/2 Japanese, 1/8 Choctaw-Chickasaw, 1/4 Black, and 1/16 Irish, was born in 1947 in Albany, Texas, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona. She began writing at the age of 14. Ai attended the University of Arizona and received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. Her first book, Cruelty, was published in 1973, and she went on to win fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. After winning the National Book Award for Vice, she became a tenured professor and the vice president of the Native American Faculty and Staff Association at Oklahoma State University. She died in 2010.