He attended Guyana's premier school Queen's College, between 1934-1939, thereafter studying land surveying and beginning work as a government surveyor in 1942, rising to senior surveyor in 1955. In this period Harris became intimately acquainted with the Guyanese interior and with the Amerindian presence. Between 1945-1961, Harris was a regular contributor of stories, poems and essays to Kyk-over-Al and part of a group of Guyanese intellectuals that included Martin Carter, Sidney Singh, Ivan Van Sertima and Milton Williams. His first publication was a chapbook of poems, Fetish, (1951) under the pseudonym Kona Waruk, followed by the more substantial Eternity to Season (1954) which announced Harris's commitment to a cross-cultural vision in the arts, linking the Homeric to the Guyanese. Harris's first published novel was Palace of the Peacock (1969), followed by a further 23 novels with The Ghost of Memory (2006) as the most recent. His novels comprise a singular, challenging and uniquely individual vision of the possibilities of spiritual and cultural transcendance out of the fixed empiricism and cultural boundedness that Harris argues has been the dominant Caribbean mode of thought.
Harris has written some of the most suggestive Caribbean criticism in Tradition the Writer and Society (1967), Explorations (1981) and the Womb of Space (1983), commenting on his own work, the limitations of the dominant naturalistic mode of Caribbean fiction, and the work of writers he admires such as Herman Melville.
He was awarded honorary doctorates by several universities, including the University of the West Indies (1984) and the University of Liège (2001), and was twice winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature. In June 2010 Wilson Harris was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours, and in 2014 he won a Lifetime Achievement Prize from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
Following the breakdown of his first marriage in the later 1950s, Harris left Guyana for the UK in 1959. He married the Scottish writer Margaret Burns and settled in Chelmsford. Thereafter until his retirement, Wilson Harris was much in demand as visiting professor and writer in residence at many leading universities.