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 bandwith Japanese banjo, fiddle, and Dobro playersand 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.