Ahmad Tohari was born 13 Juni 1948 in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang district, Banyumas to an orthodox (santri) family that to this day operates an Islamic boarding school or pesantren. Kang Tohari has spent most of his life in the region of his birth. Though he grew up in a santri family, Tohari confesses that he was a mischievous youth who often went to the neighboring abangan village (abangan meaning a less orthodox version of the Islamic faith). But his mischievousness gave him the opportunity to experience a lifestyle different from his life at his family’s pesantren. Tohari also credits his mother’s tolerant nature for this opportunity; a woman who was at once the wife of a noted Islamic teacher but who was open enough to maintain good relations with a ronggeng dancer from the neighbouring village. This memento later coloured the conception and writing of the Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk trilogy.
Tohari has lived outside of the Banyumas region; he lived in Jakarta working for Bank Negara Indonesia (1970-1972), was the editor of the newspaper Harian Merdeka (1979-1981) and the editor of the magazine Amanah (1986-1993). Despite his years in Jakarta, he was never truly comfortable there and often returned to his village. Eventually he decided to live there with his family and manage their pesantren.
Ahmad Tohari became known within Indonesian literature with the publication of his novel Kubah in 1980. Kubah won the Literature Award from Yayasan Buku Utama, a division of the Department of Education and Culture. Publication of his trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer of Paruk Village) began in 1982, continuing with the publication of Lintang Kemukus Dini Hari (A Shooting Star at Dawn) and Jentera Bianglala (The Rainbow’s Arc) in 1985 and 1986 respectively. Kubah and the Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk trilogy were some of the only books during the New Order period that discussed in detail the tragic fate of those accused of collaborating with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) after the events of the 30 September 1965 (G30S). Despite this, the political climate still influenced publication. Initially, the trilogy was serialized in the newspaper Kompas, but the distinguished daily feared to publish sections of the final book, Jentera Bianglala so Tohari re-wrote sections of the novel. The complete trilogy has now been published including those sections which were previously removed. It has also been translated by Lontar Foundation under the title The Dancer.
Tohari began writing to support himself while in medical school in Jakarta. He wrote a short story hoping to sell it; as it turns out it was accepted and published. This experience inspired confidence in himself as a writer. His first novel, Di Kaki Bukit Cibalak (At the Foot of Mt. Cibalak) was serialized in Kompas in 1979, and was then published in book form in 1986. Besides Kubah and Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, he has published many other works including Bekisar Merah, Belantik, Mas Mantri Gugat, Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air. His short stories are published in newspapers and magazines, many have been collected into the compilations Senyum Karyamin and Nyanyian Malam.
Tohari participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA, in 1990. He also received the 1995 Southeast Asia Write Award in Bangkok.
His experiences in land where he was born and lives to this day deeply influence his writing. Even when he writes about living in Jakarta, as he does in Senyum Karyamin, it is clear that he writes from the perspective of someone from the countryside. His writing has enriched Indonesian literature, preserved aspects of Banyumas culture, and through his use of local culture in his novels, given voice and respect to rural perspectives.