By: Hikmat Darmawan


Arswendo is about a lot of things. As an individual, he was the giant of Indonesian literature, and also the giant of media. At the same time, he was also as a writer who consistently representing the local perspective as “villager” in his works. 

He was born as Sarwendo in Surakarta, Central Java, on November 26, 1848. He showed his interest in writing since elementary school and started to publish his works in the mass media during his years in high school. The death of his father in 1960 forced his mother to raise 6 children by herself. Among them was Satmowi Atmowiloto, Arswendo older brother, who was later become a cartoonist, illustrator, and children’s story writer in Kawanku magazine in the 1980s. 

Arswendo had showed great interest in writing as he was familiar with books and comics since the early age. Some of them were highly influential for his later career as a writer, including Indonesian popular novels and Javanese stories by Suparto Brata. Suparto was an exemplary model for Wendo for his prolific ability in writing adventure and detective stories, and tales about war espionage that happened during the Indonesian Revolutionary Independent War. Wendo’s short story was first published in Gelora Berdikari, a Javanese-language magazine, when he was in high school. He started to get royalty from his writings ever since. 

However, Wendo’s career as a writer did not start immediately after  that. Following his high school graduation, he studied in IKIP Solo while working as vermicelli dryer, bicycle guard, and shepherd to pay his college tuition. He did not have much time to write. Despite his hard work, he didn’t get enough money for his education, and he was forced to drop out from college in the third year. No longer a student, he worked in a store and finally had much more time to write. In this period, he continued his writing career by sending more works in the mass media, most of them were published. This achievement built up his self-esteem both as a writer and as a man. He married Agnes Sri Hartini in 1971.

Shortly after the marriage, his Indonesian short story, “Sleko”, published in the national mass  media. Then, he won a writing competition in Jakarta which brought him to that city with his wife. Jakarta was an intriguing creative arena for Sarwendo who started writing under the pen name Arswendo. He also used several other pen names including: Sukmo Sasmito (for episodic short stories “Sudesi” (Sukses dengan Satu Istri), Lani Biki (for “Auk” in Suara Pembaruan), Said Saat, and B.M.D. Harahap, and of course,  Titi Nginung. 

Before the birth of his children, Wendo could write contents for three national mass media at the same time. He wrote plays, short story, episodic stories, novels, journalistic articles, and other non-fiction works. In writing fiction, he was never worried whether his works were “real literature” or not. Nevertheless, Senja yang Paling Tidak Menarik (short story collection), and two of his novels, Dua Ibu and Canting, are considered as prominent Indonesian literary works. Wendo was seem to be more interested in writing popular literature such as detective and adventure story, melodrama; especially when he was appointed by Gramedia as the chief editor of Hai magazine. 

The first edition of Hai magazine is published in January 5, 1977. In that magazine, Wendo routinely published three series: Kiki dan Komplotannya, Imung Detektif Cilik, and Keluarga Cemara besides historical stories about silat or Indonesian martial art, Senopati Pamungkas. At the same time, he also wrote several stories for comics in Hai magazine, especially Mahisa Jenar series, by working together with one of the best Indonesian comic artists, Teguh Santosa. Hai reached high popularity in Indonesia, and this achievement impressed Gramedia which then trusted Wendo to manage several of its media. 

Imung the Series strongly represented Wendo’s persistence in maintaining his local perspective. Imung became the representative of “village people perspective”: coming from the village in Central Java as an orphan to meet “big” people in the capital city, among them are Colonel Suyatman, child singer Tunggadewi, Nyoo Han Siang the conglomerate, and Tante Mochtar the socialite. Imung saw them and solved their problems from the “outside”.

Keluarga Cemara implies the writer’s contradictory views: an elite family who suffered from bankruptcy and forced to live as villagers. In this work, Arswendo underlined the value of honesty–will being honest amidst the materialistic temptation make Cemara family, as villagers, happy? The answer is yes, as represented in Wendo’s work. 

Wendo’s popularity was challenged by the survey published in Monitor, October 15, 1990 edition, under his supervision. The magazine announced the readers’ survey on the popular public figure at the time; Soeharto placed first, and Muhammad followed several numbers later. It enraged the public and several prominent figures including Amien Rais and Nurcholis Madjid. Arswendo publicly apologized for the publication, but the court decided him guilty and sentenced him to five-years imprisonment under the accusation of subversion.  

The prison did not incarcerate his creativity. He wrote several humor and drama stories about the life of a prisoner. One of the most well-known is Menghitung Hari which was published in 1993, adapted into an opera soap broadcasted by SCTV and won the Best Film Category award in Festival Sinetron Indonesia in 1995. Several other themes were born out from the prison under pseudonym. Out of prison, Wendo founded Bintang magazine and became more involved in television shows and cinema. 

Arswendo died on July 19, 2019, after a long battle against prostate cancer. Jakob Oetama, one of the founders of Gramedia who was also Wendo’s former boss, repeatedly mentioned to his employees following the writer’s arrest, “we need more people like Arswendo.”