Josh Barkan was born in Santa Monica, California. At the age of three he moved to Iowa City, where his mother taught comparative literature and his father political science at the University of Iowa. He spent a number of years living abroad as a child, because of his parents’ work, first in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then in Paris, Nairobi and New Delhi. The combination of living in foreign countries and an interest in politics, history, and literature became the central focus of his writing. During his junior year at Yale, he began to write seriously, after receiving two fellowships that allowed him to spend a summer in Jamaica, living in a thatched roof hut on a rural farm, banging out a novel on a second hand typewriter. A year later, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, and he moved to the small town of Sabae, Japan. There, besides playing in a Bluegrass band—with Japanese banjo, fiddle, and Dobro players—and singing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in a choir and biking along rice paddies, he discovered the beauty of Kyoto and the silent devastation of Hiroshima.

Returning to the U.S. from Japan, he finished his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied with James Alan McPherson, Frank Conroy, Deborah Eisenberg and Thom Jones.

His first published work was the novella “Before Hiroshima,” which Saul Bellow published in his literary magazine News from the Republic of Letters. The novella, along with five other short stories, formed his first collection, published by Toby Press and republished in 2011. The National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a literature fellowship for the book, and it was selected as an Amazon Top 100 Kindle Pick three times in 2012 and 2013.

His next book, the novel Blind Speed, was published by Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly books and was named a finalist for the 2009 Paterson Fiction Prize. The novel came out of his experience living in Boston, where he taught writing at Harvard and Boston University. More recently, he has taught creative writing at NYU, Hollins University, the University of Iowa (International Writing Program), and MIT.

His writing has appeared in Esquire and as a contributor to The Boston Book Review. Glimmer Train magazine awarded three of his stories in their Fiction Opens. The story "The Kidnapping" was named winner of the Lightship International Short Story Prize, judged by Tessa Hadley. These stories form part of the collection, Mexico, awarded runner up for the Juniper Prize for Fiction, 2014, by the University of Massachusetts Press/Amherst and runner up for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, 2014. Hogarth (Penguin Random House) published the collection in 2017, and after wide praise from the New York Times Book Review, etc. it was named one of the five best short story collections of 2017 by Library Journal and it was a best seller in Mexico. His latest book, Wonder Travels: a memoir has been praised by Andre Dubus III, along with many other writers. It will be published in the spring of 2023.

Barkan has repeatedly had residencies at The Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood, Florida, and for nine months as writer-in-residence at Into the Furnace/Chatham University in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Since 2009 he’s lived and travelled extensively in Mexico, where he has experienced crime-syndicate violence in the country, firsthand. He currently lives in Boston.