Kallifatides was born in the village Molaoi, in Laconia, Greece in 1938. His father was Dimitrios Kallifatides, a teacher originated from Pontus and his mother was Antonia Kyriazakou from Molaoi. In 1946 he and his family moved to Athens where he finished high school and studied in the Karolos Koun's theatrical school. He emigrated to Sweden in 1964 and has lived in the country ever since. He studied philosophy, and has worked as a lecturer at Stockholm University between 1969 and 1972 and then as chief of Bonniers literary magazine between 1972 and 1976. Kallifatides made his literary debut in 1969 with a poetry book, but gained recognition mainly through his subsequently published novels. He has published novels, poetry collections, travel essays and plays. He has written film scripts and has directed a film.
Kallifatides has received numerous awards for his works which usually revolve around his experience of Greece and of being Greek in foreign domains, and almost all his works have been translated and published in more than twenty languages.