Narayan was born in Bombay, attended school in India and came to the United States in 1976. Narayan received a BA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College and went on to post-graduate studies in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving her PhD in 1987. She taught anthropology and South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is a professor in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.
In 1989, she published Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching; it received the Victor Turner Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology and was co-winner of the Elsie Clews Prize for Folklore from the American Folklore Society. She was co-editor of Creativity/Anthropology (1993); in that year she was also named a Guggenheim Fellow in the field of anthropology and cultural studies.
In 1994, she published the novel Love, Stars and All That. Reviewing the novel, Indian poet and editor Dom Moraes praised the work, saying:
“This is a novel well received and achieved: it is also intelligent, excellently written, and revelatory of what it is like to be an American born in India. It makes one feel Narayan is that very rare bird, a born writer, and that she may fly far.”
Narayan published Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon: Himalayan Foothill Folktales in 1997. In 2002 a new edition of the first collection of Indian folk tales in English, Mary Frere's Old Deccan Days, was published with an introduction by Narayan. In 2007, she published a memoir My Family and Other Saints. An autobiographical work in which "Gods, gurus and eccentric relatives compete for primacy", the New York Times described the work as an "enchanting memoir".
In her work Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov, Narayan used Anton Chekhov's Sakhalin Island as inspiration for an exploration of ethnographic writing. James Wood, writing of his 'Books of the Year' in The New Yorker, described it as a "brief and brilliant book" that he read "with huge pleasure". In 2016 Narayan published Everyday Creativity: Singing Goddesses in the Himalayan Foothills.
- Sharma, Maya (2000). "Kirin Narayan". In Emmanuel Sampath Nelson (ed.). Asian American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. p. 257. ISBN 0313309116.
- "Professor Kirin Narayan". ANU Researchers - Research Services Division. Australian National University. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
- Sanga, Jaina C (2003). South Asian Novelists in English: An A-to-Z Guide. p. 186. ISBN 0313318859.
- Encyclopedia of Asian-American Literature. 2015. pp. 556–57. ISBN 1438140584.
- "Professor Kirin Narayan". Australian National University.
- "SHA Prize Winners". Society for Humanistic Anthropology.
- "Kirin Narayan". John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
- Moraes, Dom Coming of Age: A Fine, Funny Debut. India Today, July 31, 1994: 95 http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/book-review-kirin-narayan-love-stars-and-all-that/1/293740.html
- William Grimes, "Groovy Pad Full of Gods and Gurus", New York Times, 26 Dec 2007.
- Wood, James (17 December 2012). "Books of the Year". The New Yorker.